by Megan Stacey
Friends, food, shopping, and doing good – what’s not to like?
Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia’s flagship fundraiser, Gems & Java, has become a pillar of Woodstock’s local fundraising scene.
Longtime guests say that once you go, you have to go back, usually with a few extra people in tow.
“We brought my mom for Mother’s Day one year, and as soon as my sisters came they were like ‘oh my gosh, this is crazy’ and they fell in love with it, too,” said Lori Otto, who’s attended the event from the very beginning.
She’s introduced many people to the fun that is Gems & Java, recruiting most of the female relatives in her family, including her daughter and one of her daughter’s friends.
“My daughter is just 18 and she comes and goes crazy. She shops and shops and shops,” Lori said.
“I found it’s just such a good time for getting everybody together, all the girls.”
Gems & Java has changed as it picked up steam over the past six years. The very first event drew about 100 people. These days more than 500 guests come to enjoy the merriment.
“It keeps growing every year. Every year the committee adds something to make it exciting. It’s never boring because you never know what you’re going to get,” said Judi VanDeCappelle, a longtime donor and guest at Gems & Java.
There are some constants, of course, like good food, impeccable Ethiopian coffee, and an inspirational speech from Shelley Green to update guests about the impact of their funds in Ethiopia.
But the Bags & Baubles Boutique is another area of constant change. The offerings there have expanded just as much as the crowds at the event.
“It was like going to a little boutique when it started, to a shopping mall, now,” said Lori. “It is just so much fun to go. You feel like you’re in a real store.”
Every guest at Gems & Java is able to select one complimentary purse, scarf, or piece of jewellery. Additional pieces can be purchased, and all the proceeds support Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia.
Lori still remembers what she chose at the very first event.
“It’s a black, leather purse. It was brand new, it had never been used, and now I use it for dressing up,” she said. “The purse is designed like an elephant, the handle goes around and it’s the elephant trunk. It’s really cute.”
One thing sticks out in her mind: “There’s so much to choose from.”
It’s the same story at the silent auction table.
A group of dedicated volunteers work for months leading up to Gems & Java, soliciting gift cards, handmade craft items, and tons of other unique products to entice donors.
“We brainstorm ideas for the kinds of items that we think will generate some excitement on our tables,” said Kim Leuverink, chair of the silent auction committee.
Think pottery, gourmet gift baskets, handmade charcuterie boards – there’s something for everyone.
“We work really hard to make the silent auction appeal to a wide range of people, and we always try to make sure we include some really unique items,” Kim said.
Last year proceeds from the silent auction cracked $10,000.
“It’s always exciting to see those bids run up,” Kim said. “To think about how much that can do for people in Ethiopia is pretty gratifying.”
And both events have brand new items on display, both in the Bags & Baubles Boutique and atop the silent auction tables, for both the Friday and Saturday events.
It takes a lot to make the two days run smoothly. Lisa Green is in charge of managing the volunteer power at Gems & Java.
“The cause is a great one – helping people in Ethiopia is exciting – and every little bit donated as volunteer time or money is useful,” she said.
Lisa thinks it’s the social time and the feeling of connection that keeps both guests and volunteers coming back.
“A lot of ladies have said that they so look forward to this event to spend the afternoon or evening with their friends for a great cause.”
It’s that great cause part that stays with guests long after they leave the music and jewellery behind. Many are brought to tears by the stories that Shelley shares from Ethiopia. There are new projects to announce, and updates to share.
The impact, the lives changed in Ethiopia, makes all the thousands of hours that go into the event worth it.
“She can tell it just like it is. She’s a very good speaker. She never ceases to hold my attention,” Judi said of Shelley’s speech.
“Each year you think, ‘there’s just such a need.'”
And the grassroots nature of Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia has some distinct advantages when it comes to donations.
“I honestly believe that when I donate money for something specific here, Shelley is making sure that gets done. I don’t know about other people, but that’s really important to me,” Judi said.
Donors at the event – and those that contribute from afar – know that they’ll be able to see and hear exactly where their dollars went in Ethiopia.
“Because of who we are as Canadians – generally speaking we’re pretty fortunate people here – I think they just see the need to help people who struggle on a daily basis,” Kim said.
“I think that really pulls heartstrings.”
If you’ve never experienced Gems & Java, this is the year to jump on board. Once you see the event in action, it’s likely you’ll be a devotee.