This is the 20th anniversary for Red Roof Retreat, which, like many other organizations, depends on volunteers to help run its events, programs, and fundraisers.
But all of those have been cancelled for the next while, and that includes an opportunity to celebrate the anniversary milestone with a volunteer tea.
The event was planned for this week, which is National Volunteer Week, set aside to recognize the commitment, dedication and selflessness of volunteers across Canada.
Before the pandemic cancelled or postponed events and gatherings, Red Roof staff were seeking out the many volunteers who have helped out during the last two decades, hoping for a reunion celebration, and an opportunity to thank them all for their contributions that have helped Red Roof grow to what it is today.
Although that couldn’t happen, Steffanie Bjorgan, founder and executive director of Red Roof, has five awards to present to her heroes — virtually, for now — all exceptional volunteers she wants to recognize for their commitment to helping the local organization that provides quality respite and recreational programs to children, youth and young adults with special needs and their families in the Niagara Region.
The first is for a local family, well-known for its volunteering for many different organizations. “A family that volunteers together, grows together,” Bjorgan says, noting that four generations of van der Zalms “have always, in some way, been contributing to Red Roof Retreat, since the very beginning. How do you teach philanthropy and volunteerism? You do it by leading by example, by being a role model. Others learn from you by what you do, not what you say.”
Whether it is through donations, giving their time and skills, attending events or advocating on behalf of Red Roof, “there’s always a van der Zalm somewhere involved in what we do.”
Each generation teaches the next the value of giving back to their community, she says. “Having watched some of the kids in the early years, helping around the property or coming to events, and now seeing them having families of their own, and teaching their kids to do the same, is proof that people lead by example,” says Bjorgan.
“On behalf of Red Roof Retreat, she says, “and all the other organizations that Team VDZ supports, thank you all. It takes a village, but in this case it takes a family.”
This year Bjorgan has a special award to be handed out for the first time. She explains that several years ago, a young woman walked onto the property asking if she could spend some time helping with the horses. “She had spent her younger years riding and showing horses, but after a fall and significant injuries, she was hesitant to come back and reconnect with her passion.”
She began working with the horses at Red Roof, and soon started riding and volunteering on a regular basis. “Her dedication and determination were admirable. It was an honour to witness the healing power of the horses and the property at Red Roof Retreat. This young lady was Laura Robertson. Tragically, her beautiful soul left us in 2018,” says Bjorgan.
Robertson shared her love of Red Roof Retreat with Karley McKeigan, bringing her to the farm, where Karley caught the same passion of wanting to be there on a regular basis. “She has continued on to this day, helping when she can, as well as following in Laura’s footsteps to become a volunteer firefighter,” says Bjorgan. Karley and Laura shared a friendship, and a commitment to something bigger than themselves, “something we wish everyone could experience at least once in their lifetime.”
Karley continues to exemplify a true “horse spirit,” says Bjorgan, and is being recognized this year with the first Laura Robertson Memorial Award.
The NOTL Kinsmen represent the meaning of community, and show “many hands make light work,” says Bjorgan.
Club members have become true heroes for Red Roof, helping since the beginning.
“On a warm June night, 20 years ago, and literally the night before the first day Red Roof Retreat opened, a group of NOTL Kinsmen were helping to put the finishing touches on a chicken coop in anticipation of our first special needs class visit,” says Bjorgan.
“Working in the dark, under a flood light, it got done. This is symbolic of the Kinsmen Club. They are the ‘doers’ in the community. Over the years, Red Roof has reached out to the club for support in a variety of ways, and the answer has always been yes.”
This solid group of community volunteers stays humble and kind, she says, and epitomizes what it means to give selflessly. “Always with a smile and good fun in mind, they go about quietly doing their good deeds for the benefit of others. Red Roof Retreat is honoured by their long-standing support and proud to be recognizing them during our 20th anniversary. Here’s to 20 more.”
Niagara Serve is a Christian-based organization that gives high school students from Canada volunteer opportunities that can benefit charitable organizations.
Since 2005, leaders from Niagara Serve have voluntarily organized build projects at Red Roof Retreat. “They recruit community volunteers who have the building skills, tools and resources, and they oversee and teach young volunteers everything from building, painting, gardening, fence-building, or working in our summer camp with our special needs clients. They are never afraid of hard work, no matter the weather, and ask for nothing in return,” she says.
“Without leaders such as Ron, Annelise and Uncle Henk, the volunteer experience would never exist, and the building of Red Roof Retreat would never have come this far.”
And for the last award, says Bjorgan, “Remember that saying, ‘behind every good man is a good woman?’ Some people might take offence to that, but in my case, I’d like to reverse that saying.”
The award is her opportunity to publicly thank her husband, Moe Bjorgan, for being beside her on their journey of the last 20 years.
“I have been the face of Red Roof Retreat, and humbly accepted recognition and accolades on the charity’s behalf. It has been my vision, but I would never have been able to make it a reality without a good man behind me,” she says.
“Raising a child with special needs is no easy task. Trust me, I could write a book about all the things I never expected to be doing. But that story is for another time. For now, I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation for the man who always, and I mean always, supported me to bring this vision to life, while at the same time being the best friend, husband and father I could ask for.
“It’s not easy having your wife for a boss (I can hear everyone chuckling), but from doing emergency repairs, to capital improvement projects, and of course his infamous golf tournament, which has been raising money for charity for over 20 years, he has volunteered willingly and with love. When Red Roof needs my undivided attention, he is there on the home front. He has supported Red Roof Retreat and our special family in every aspect, in every way he could. Moe has been there from the beginning, and I know he will be there for all time,” she says.
“How lucky is Red Roof Retreat? How lucky am I? And it is because of this, that Moe is being recognized for the first and only Volunteer Extraordinaire Award for his dedication, and for following the motto of ‘Be a man who did a good act, not for himself, but for the cause of good.’”