Tonight, a trio from the city's food and beverage community will be getting out of their comfort zones to join 47 other "next generation" of Torontonians, and sleep on the streets. No, they are not camping out for Crackies, but are raising both awareness and money for Covenant House - Canada's largest homeless youth agency. One of the key participants is Adam Pesce, the director of Oakville's Reunion Island Coffee, who doesn't just run a B Corp-certified specialty roaster and wholesaler (meaning they're on a short list of companies that make the most positive social and environmental impact in the world), but also contributes heavily to improving the community including being the executive director of First Drop Canada – a not-for-profit that raises money for coffee-related causes and NGOs. He'll be joined by his good friend Ben Heaton from The Grove (there might have been a little peer pressure) and Trevor Wilkinson of Trevor Kitchen and Bar, as they collectively give their time and demonstrate that there's more to restaurant life than hanging on to the latest culinary trend or opening the hottest new restaurant (although Wilkinson did just open Tavern by Trevor). Eater spoke with Pesce about his motivations, goals, and how he hopes to eventually become obsolete (re: charitable work, that is).
Besides implementing an impressive list of sustainability programs and initiatives within your own company, you're involved in numerous community building charitable organizations. How did you get involved with the Covenant House?
I was at a Coffee Association of Canada meeting, and they had Bruce [Rivers] who's the executive director of the Covenant House in to speak […] and we started talking about Covenant. My mom has donated to Covenant House since I was kid because she always felt that 'my kids were lucky enough to not be on the streets, but if they were, they'd be lucky to have a place like Covenant House.' I got involved mainly because I wanted to do some volunteer work with my dog, Indy, so I go every Tuesday and just hang out with the kids. His happiness is pretty infectious, and he brings smiles to the faces of a lot of people who don't have much of a reason to smile. And while he does his thing, I get to talk to the kids, hear their stories, maybe even share some advice here and there.
So why are you sleeping out?
From volunteering I've come to understand, more than ever, why Toronto's homeless youth need our help to get the second chance they deserve. So many of the kids at Covenant House are there for reasons beyond their control – violence, abuse, intolerance towards who they are (many of them after they've come out of the closet), and bad luck – forced them out of their homes and onto the street. None of them want to be on the streets, they all want a chance for something better. Covenant House is what they need; it provides 24/7 crisis care and has the widest range of services under one roof, including education, counselling, health care, employment assistance, life and job skills training. So it's not just giving them a place to sleep and a hot meal, it's to give an opportunity for them to get a better life with skills that they can pick themselves up. By participating in this event I am doing my small part to make sure the doors stay open for all who need them.
How did you get others like Ben Heaton to join you?
When [Sleep Out] came up, [the organizers] got me involved because of my history with fundraising for First Drop and they knew that I knew people in the restaurant industry. So it was a chance to get the culinary world involved. Covenant House has this culinary program and they have a great training kitchen (that's as good as what I had when I was at George Brown). If you look at Ben's profile, he even mentions that a lot of these kids might end up in the industry. It's a skillset that people can learn, and there's always a call for skilled people in the kitchen.
Can you tell us a little more about what your night will be like?
At the event, we'll come in, have dinner that'll be cooked by the kids who have gone through the culinary program, listen to some talks from people who have gone through the program, hear Kristyn Wong-Tam speak – ... she was a homeless youth at one point and went on to become a city councillor – a pretty good person to come in and talk to the kids, and us, about why people end up on the street, and then we're sent out to sleep until five in the morning. All we'll have is a sleeping bag and piece of cardboard and that's it.
What are your fundraising goals?
We all originally pledged to raise $2000 each, and we had a goal to raise $100,000 as a group. We've now raised $145,000, so we really blew past our goal but we're trying to do a last minute push for more. I'm trying for $3000! Unlike a lot of fundraisers and galas, 94% of all donations will go directly to Covenant House (the rest is needed to cover the logistics of the event). It's been a great experience and we're already planning for next year (April 9th).
It easy to see why organizations like the Covenant House are important, but are there any challenges in the fundraising process?
[Covenant House] got hit hard by the whole Canada Post thing [of eliminating door-to-door mail delivery] and increasing postage prices because almost all their fundraising used to be through direct mail. So you have to get more creative with how to fundraise. So we're hoping that this doesn't just raise a lot of money but also creates awareness about the homeless situation that we have in Toronto. There are ten thousand kids living at some point in time on the streets of Toronto each year. With less and less government programs available, the non-profit sector is filling in some holes that private business or the government can't really take care of.
What do you hope to achieve at the end of the day?
I hope that more people will become a little bit more aware. Our industry can do so much more, even if it's donating your time, restaurant space, or anything like that. We need to start getting into the habit and getting into the culture. It's hard because everyone's got a small business and it's hard to make ends meet in the first place. To see people donating time and energy is amazing. You can still have a thriving business and do that.
You'd also hope that Covenant House and all organizations like it become obsolete one day. That's the dream. That's the dream that people in the non-profit sector don't talk about enough: the idea of becoming irrelevant. A good organization should want to make itself obsolete.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Hope it'll be pleasant weather tonight. Take care and have a good experience.
It's going to be warm but rainy apparently, but we'll be fine for the night. Thank you.
Visit Covenant House for more information on how you can support. Pesce's sponsor page is here. As an added bonus, for every pledge greater than $20, Pesce will send the donor a bag of inaugural roast coffee from Reunion Island's new Small Lot Series. — Renée Suen