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Raising a Million in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Raising a Million in Niagara-on-the-Lake

They’re the sorts of tools that make summer richer for special-needs children and youth in Niagara-on-the-Lake – and they came to Red Roof Retreat through a community’s generosity.

Computers. Software. Pool equipment. Key educational signs. They’re just some of the elements the Retreat has been able to roll out recently, on top of other planned-giving initiatives aimed at older residents, made possible by grants from the Niagara Community Foundation’s million-dollar Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Fund.

“In our early years and expansion, the Foundation really helped us grow through funds for equipment, operations and capital dollars,” said Steffanie Bjorgan, Red Roof’s Founder and Executive Director. “They were there, for anything to help us move forward and be successful.”


That success helps not only children, but older adults. It’s meant Red Roof can develop planned-giving programs like wills and bequests, and a monthly giving initiative called “Red Rovers” that brings in about $20,000 annually. As well, the Retreat has started an endowment fund with the Niagara Community Foundation, in exchange for philanthropic consulting.

Gifts like these are made possible through the NOTL Fund. Though a relatively new fund, it has grown rapidly thanks to the generosity of the community, rapidly garnering a total endowment of more than $1 million.

“That milestone was reached just two years after the fund committee banded together in 2016,” said Niagara Community Foundation Executive Director Bryan Rose. “It is an amazing, inspiring local story.”

Forming the Fund’s backbone are a raft of volunteers. Key supporters of the Fund include Wendy Cheropita, Patrick Darte, Ann-Louise Branscombe, Nancy Bailey, Joan King, Leisa Lepp, Debi Pratt, Mario Ferrara, Shawn Spiewak, Mike Berlis, Brianne Hawley and Ken Bridgman.

The lifeblood of the Fund are gifts from fund-founding donors. These include Vintage Hotels, Patrick Darte and family, Joe Pillitteri and family, Rainer Hummel and family, and Rick Dritsacos and family.

Those and other donations came together with another recent donation: An infusion of approximately $450,000 from the Niagara-on-the-Lake Healthcare Foundation, which dissolved and granted about half of its remaining funding to the NOTL Fund. Together, these gifts pushed the Fund past the million-dollar threshold.

Donations to the endowment fund — one of many similar local funds across the region — are tailored to donors’ interests and needs. Capital is invested, with earnings supporting local grant programs helping Niagara-on-the-Lake causes.

The fund originated in 2016, spearheaded by Patrick Darte, Lord Mayor from 2014 to 2018. At the time, the Town was one of the few in Niagara without a local fund at the Foundation. Darte — also a founding director of the Foundation – was determined to change that.

After a couple of key discussions “we proceeded to put the logistics in place,” Darte said. He reached out to local philanthropists who he knew might be interested in supporting the fund, and quickly found several willing to come in at at least $100,000.
“We were off and running,” he said.

Wendy Cheropita, who sits on town council, said Darte also approached her about being part of the team.

“This is a town filled with very engaged residents who get involved and really participate in their community,” said Cheropita, who is also the NOTL Fund Committee Chair. “I thought this was a perfect way to also get involved.

“So that’s where the story began. And people stepped up immediately. When we launched the fund, we actually did it with almost $500,000.”

“Building the fund is about being out there, educating people about what endowment funds are and why they’re so important to local charities.”

Debi Pratt, a leader in Niagara’s wine industry, can trace her involvement with the Niagara Community Foundation back to the Foundation’s Cuvee fundraising event. She has worked closely with the Cuvee committee since it started, alongside the Foundation’s previous Executive Director Liz Palmieri, who has since retired from that position.

“I was impressed with how much the Foundation accomplished since it started in 2000,” Pratt said.  Her passion led her to a writing series for the Niagara Community Foundation that showcases donor stories.

“I found each story connected strongly with their roots and pride in their family history,” she said.
Out of that, she joined forces with the Darte-initiative spearheading the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Fund. “I was excited to sit on this committee,” she said. “Drawing on this collective enthusiasm, we reached the million-dollar mark in just a few years.”

The Fund has gone on to provide grants to a selection of local causes. These include the Niagara Historical Museum, Niagara Pumphouse Visual Arts Centre, Niagara Foundation, Red Roof Retreat and St. Michael’s School.

For Red Roof’s Bjorgan, the Foundation’s support was invaluable, and she hopes to continue to build a multi-year partnership.

”We’re really grateful to have grown with the help of the Foundation,” she said.

Darte said the fund has a twofold benefit for the community.

“For the individual donors, it allows them to create a legacy for themselves or for their families or businesses— and have their name carry on over the years,” he said. “For the community, it allows ongoing, longterm funding for its charities, who can now focus on their future needs and budgets.

For some, the Fund has inspired giving of a more personal nature.

Through her involvement with the Fund, Pratt was inspired to start her own endowment fund, topped up through her speaking fees. Pratt said she was impressed with how the Foundation works and how it helps to build a strong community base out of the capital it invests.

“I love Niagara-on-the-Lake,” she said. “And I love that I can help keep our Town special, by paying attention to our past, present and future.”