'Not a sustainable model': After almost 3 decades, Cambridge's Kids Can Play charity retires

·3 min read

Christie Miller was told by a colleague that everything has a season. This is the season, she says, for Kids Can Play.

Calling it a “multi-factorial” decision, the executive director of the charity — which funds the enrolment of Cambridge and North Dumfries’ financially disadvantaged children in sports, arts and music — will hang up its skates in June after 27 years.

Founded by David and Nancy Ridsdale, Ross and Joanne MacKinnon, and Sharon Parkinson, Kids Can Play has generated 7,040 grants, with donations exceeding $2.1 million. Recently, the charity was managing $200,000 a year.

But a perfect storm, culminating with the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen Miller and treasurer Deanne Johnson as the two remaining board members running the ship with no volunteers.

Miller, who has been with the organization for about 25 years, even looked at stripping herself of her paid position — which was made possible in 2018 through donations geared toward operations — and return the executive director title to volunteer to avoid 50 per cent of the donations going to overhead costs. Kids Can Play has always managed to send 95 to 100 per cent of donations directly to families, she said.

But to get a paying job, juggle time with her family and a son who needs full-time care, then work 30 to 40 hours a week on Kids Can Play, seemed to be impossible since Johnson is going through with her delayed retirement in June.

“It's just not a sustainable model at this point,” Miller said.

“As a parent of anything, a parent of a charity, a parent of family, you’ve got to weigh all of the issues that are at hand so that you can create the best environment.

“I think that was the sort of biggest thing that Deedee and I were really struggling with, to see how we could create that good positive environment for the community that we'd created.”

Miller noted the ball started rolling downhill just before the pandemic, however, as they were in a downward trend with volunteerism. Then, when the pandemic came, what really pushed them to the brink was when fundraising events went online. Miller admits previous in-person events garnered a higher appeal for donors.

It was a “paradigm shift,” she said.

“That kind of, as I say, magic, can't happen when you do virtual fundraising,” said Miller.

“There's been success with the person-to-person fundraising and the various campaigns that were going on. The big thing would be I'm the one that's sort of becoming responsible for that fundraising and it is just not my forte.”

Then, when most of the board members bowed out during the pandemic — as children were home learning online or members decided to focus on their family — Miller knew the time had come to concede.

However, Miller wanted to use the time left to focus on the good times over the almost three decades.

She told the story of reading some Kids Can Play emails prior to heading out to the Ron Stone Memorial Golf Tournament at Grand Valley, where Kids Can Play was the charity of choice.

An email had come from a woman whose husband died and she was going to have to pull her kids from their programs because she couldn’t afford it.

“I said, ‘It seems that Ron is on the other side helping other people out still.’ That story has names to go with it, but that's not an uncommon story where there would be times over the last many years of people just reaching out, and in this case, reaching out from heaven, to help a family.”

Miller said Kids Can Play funded their programs for a couple years until the family got back on its feet. The woman then became a volunteer.

“It’s a pretty amazing community. Which is what makes this so difficult,” Miller said.

Bill Doucet, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times