Tragic loss of her son created a Cabbagetown philanthropist

Eric Morse — 

On Feb. 14, 1999, the year before Sandra Riches moved to Cabbagetown, her son Shawn died in an avalanche Mount Baker in Washington state. Beyond the immediate grief and mourning, the tragedy refocused her life.

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“In the year or so before his death, he had done some travelling and it was life-changing for him,” says Riches, “and what he always said was that he could not believe how hard some families had to work just to put a bowl of rice on the table. He felt that it was really important to get involved in some way in doing something for these people who were working so hard. So after he died, I found a Canadian charity where 100% of the gift actually gets to the people it’s intended for.”

She became involved with an organization called Sleeping Children Around the World (SCAW). Founded by the Ken Dryden family, whose purpose is to assist children on the poorest levels of society by providing them with the physical necessities for a decent sleep and school attendance.

“One of the things that makes it unique,” Riches says, is that the money is raised here individually but it is in partnership with an organization in the recipient country—in India it’s the Rotary Club. The money is sent there and used to finance the contents of the bed-kit.”

The bed-kit includes a groundsheet, a mattress, a waterproof mat, two blankets, pillow and pillowcase, two pairs of pajamas, underwear, two school uniforms, shoes, a sweater, a backpack with books and school supplies, a water bottle, a cap, and a raincoat.

“As part of the program we do visit families that have received the kits the year before to see what condition the supplies are in, and when you realize that perhaps that kit makes up almost half of what that family owns you realize how significant it is. They keep it in wonderful condition and we often see that they reserve one blanket for future use.”

For about 10 years she and husband Lou Vavougios ran a golf tournament and raised money, and then two years ago she had the opportunity to travel to Mumbai and a rural area called Belgaum in the uplands east of Mumbai.

She has just returned from her second trip, a month-long visit to Pune (formerly Poona), India, helping to distribute supplies.

“I love the people and the colour.”

At home, Riches and Max—her therapy dog—visit hospitals to provide companionship to people who like animals but because of their life circumstances or medical conditions cannot have them nearby.

“I’ve always had dogs,” she told The Bulletin, “and I always found that people gravitate to a calm dog.”

“So once I got Max and I was retired from Durham School Board, we trained Max and we visit Ronald McDonald House and Toronto Grace once a week.”

She also works with Cabbagetown Youth Centre (CYC) and for 15 years has been an organizer of Blair’s Run, a 2 km fun run around the neighbourhood to raise funds for the CYC that has been part of the Cabbagetown Festival for going on 36 years. An avid gardener, she also helps to organize Cabbagetown showpiece events such as Streets in Bloom. In addition, she is now very involved with Cabbagetown SALAM, one of the many Downtown groups sponsoring Syrian refugee families

More information about Sleeping Children Around the World along with donation and volunteer opportunities can be found at scaw.org.

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