Coldest Night of the Year walks returning to Blyth, Wingham this month
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
On Feb 24, the annual Coldest Night of the Year (CNOY) fundraising walk will be happening in towns and cities across Canada. The event is still weeks away, but it already looks like the little town of Wingham is going to put in a strong showing again this year. The family-friendly event invites anybody and everybody to raise money by collecting donations and walking for either two or five kilometres in support of local charities that aim to serve members of the community that are experiencing hurt, hunger and homelessness.
Every year, the Wingham walk is put on with support from the Blue Sea Foundation, the United Way and local businesses. Lisa Harper of the United Way Perth Huron was kind enough to stop by The Citizen office for an in-depth conversation about the upcoming event, the importance of community engagement and the generosity of local residents.
While Harper was thoroughly impressed with last year’s efforts, she also believes this year has the potential to be even more successful. “Last year, we didn’t reach our goal of $40,000. We raised about $28,000, which is good, really good! But the previous year, our goal was $35,000, and we raised $42,000.” Rather than set their sights on a more modest goal this year, Wingham is aiming even higher. “This year we’re hoping - our goal is $50,000. We are at just about 20 per cent already, at three weeks out.”
While Wingham’s walk tends to attract a good number of participants, the walk has recently garnered additional support from a bit of a fundraising secret weapon - the people of Blyth and Lucknow have organized their own hometown walks in support of Wingham’s chosen cause - the Northern Huron Connection Centre. The centre, which opened in Wingham last year, offers a variety of services to local people in need, from all over North Huron and beyond.
Fundraising in Blyth is already well underway - in fact, there’s going to be a “Loonie Toonie Live Auction” on Feb. 12 (blizzard date: Feb. 19) at Trinity Anglican Church to raise money. The event has been spearheaded by Penny Chmilar of Penny’s of Blyth, with a lot of support from local businesses and assistance from Harper. “It’s going to be a really fun night!” she exclaimed. “There’s going to be 15 or 16 vendors, and we’re going to auction off items, and a portion of the funds raised are going to go to the Coldest Night of the Year, which, again, goes to the Connection Centre.” Most of the businesses on Blyth’s main drag have agreed to donate items: Pick-a-Posie Vintage, The Blyth Inn, Maple and Moose, Sweets and Treats and the Blyth Festival are all sending in some enticing options for bidding. There are also donations coming in from direct sellers like The Pampered Chef and Epicure. There are 100 tickets available to the auction, which can be purchased at Penny’s on Queen Street for $5 each.
The actual walk in Blyth will be happening on Saturday, Feb. 17, one week before the big event in Wingham.
The walk in Lucknow will be taking place on Sunday, Feb. 18, and is being organized by Lucknow and South Kinloss Presbyterian Churches. Harper will be speaking during church service that day, which will begin at 10 a.m. The walk is open to all and will run from 11 a.m. until 11:45 a.m. All the proceeds from Lucknow’s walk will go towards reaching the Wingham walk’s $50,000. Afterwards, all are invited to head back to the church for chili.
Harper is also hoping for an increase in attendance at all of this year’s CNOY events. “Last year (in Wingham) we had 70 to 80 people come out, and we’re hoping for about the same this year. Actually, more. I’d love to have 100 people, or even more, join us!” Harper feels that every contribution helps, no matter how small. “We have folks that come that day, on Feb. 24, but we do prefer they register ahead of time - it just gives them more time for fundraising. Last year, we had half a dozen people that came the day of the walk and asked to join. They didn’t necessarily do any fundraising, but one gentleman brought a cheque for $250 as a donation and asked to walk, and we said, “Absolutely!”
One thing that Harper believes sets the CNOY event apart is the way it focuses on specific local charities - all the money raised by each walk goes directly towards a cause that’s important to that community. “In Wingham, that money is going to the Connection Centre,” she said. “The walk in Goderich is for the Huron Homeless Initiative. In Exeter, it’s going directly to their Connection Centre. We’re able to say this is what we’re raising for, and this is what the funds are going specifically to.”
In previous years, Wingham has raised money for the Connection Centre, but Harper feels that things are a bit different this time around. “The nice part about this year - the funds are being raised for the Northern Huron Connection Centre in Wingham. The last two years, the centre wasn’t open yet, so it’s not that folks didn’t have a buy-in - they just didn’t really understand what it was all about. It opened in July of last year, so we can give folks stats now. We can tell them that, since July last year, they’ve had over 340 visits to the site. They’ve served 274 meals. The laundry services are being used every day. The showers are being used every day. It’s been really nice.” Having some concrete evidence that their cause is one that really works is a good motivator for walk participants and donors alike.
Another motivating factor for local fundraisers: simple human empathy. “I think that because a lot of folks, you know, maybe have a family member that’s been living rough, or they’ve experienced it themselves, or they have mental health issues,” she explained, “those folks with lived experience can be very understanding. And there’s that generosity there too. Because they get it.”
In Harper’s estimation, the number of people in Huron County struggling to make ends meet is increasing. “It’s a sign of the times… there’s a lot of folks out there who just can’t make it right now. Whether they can’t pay their rent, or they can’t pay their mortgage. Whether they have a roof over their head, there’s so many people out there right now in that situation.” Despite compounding challenges, Harper is optimistic. “In Wingham, we’re able to help folks get out of those situations. The Connection Centre has actually recently placed an individual, who had been living without a home for about two years, into an apartment. One person being placed in one home may seem like a very small story, but it is one of many small stories happening all over the country. And that is what makes this ever so inspiring.”
There are CNOY walks held all across Canada, each one raising funds for a local cause connected to the community. While all funds raised are kept within their respective municipalities, the impact of each individual CNOY walk reverberates on a national level. In Salmon Arm, B.C., they walk for the Shuswap Food Action Society, which is a group that addresses food insecurity through school programs, community gardens and fresh local food boxes for low-income residents. In Summerside, P.E.I, the people walk for the Lifehouse Emergency Shelter and Transitional Housing, which offers a place to stay for women and children in need. Each one of these local programs improves the lives of real people, who, in turn, are in a better position to contribute to their communities, which leads to a stronger social fabric, nationwide.
The walk isn’t just good for those using the services it supports - it’s also good for the participants! Harper says, “Engagement is absolutely essential, especially coming out of COVID. With regards to people being in isolation, you see a lot more mental health issues coming up. There are folks that are struggling, that are reaching out, that are using the 211 service, to get connected back into the community. So, engagement is so essential to mental health, physical health, and overall well-being. And without folks being involved, things just stop… so please register! We’d love to have you on board! It’s fun, it’s a fantastic event, you’ll be part of the community, and you’ll know you’ve done something really good for a fellow citizen in your local area.”
The main event will be happening in Wingham on Feb. 24, beginning at 4 p.m. at the Libro Credit Union and Maitland River Community Church parking lots.