An ‘awesome’ concept

Local chapter of worldwide, informally delightful group, is helping to spark meaningful change

Local Awesome Foundation founder John DeGroot is pictured with former Dean Lynne Baarschers.

For quite a number of years now, an email would go out from the “Dean” of the Awesome Foundation, inviting members of the media to attend a “pitch party” that would take place, the winner to receive a grant of $1,000 for their idea.

And enough times that Lambton Shield became something of a friend to the Awesome Foundation (“an awesome friend?”) someone would attend those events, rather informal gatherings of perhaps 10 or so “trustees” (the number fluctuates) each of whom put in $1,000 over a year to a fund that’s managed by the Sarnia Community Foundation.

When the ideas are presented by the individual (or members of a group in some cases), a few questions are asked of the presenters and the trustees go off to a corner of the room to discuss things and make a decision.

It’s really that simple, which is more or less the point of the entire Awesome Foundation concept.

Founded in Boston 10 years ago, the Awesome Foundation has become a group made up of 94 chapters in 13 countries, with each group operating completely autonomously, many of them not actually organized formally at all.

In fact, it’s the idea behind the Awesome Foundation that drives what happens and that is as or more accurately, the Sarnia-Lambton chapter of an organization that has its roots in Boston, where the ideal first took root in 2009.

In the email, which until very recently came from Lynn Baarschers, whose “paid” job is at DeGroot’s Nurseries, was an invitation to attend a “pitch party” where several (typically three) groups of applicants would be asking for one of the Awesome Foundation gifts, a $1,000 “no strings attached” grant that is exactly what it indicates.

No one is keeping track of what happens when the grant is made, which happens after trustees hear the presentations and then meet off in a corner to discuss the merits of each “idea” that’s pitched and come back to announce who will get the money.

John DeGroot, Lynn’s boss at DeGroot’s Nurseries in Sarnia, explained how Sarnia-Lambton became an Awesome Foundation chapter in a conversation we had with him as part of a podcast on Lambton Shield.

“For a while I’d been a member of the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise and at one of the meetings, we had a speaker from the Toronto chapter of the Awesome Foundation, who explained how things worked and I thought it was kind of interesting,” said DeGroot.

That was probably around 2012 and DeGroot spoke to a few people in town, asking their opinion on the idea, eventually forming their own chapter.

In the original Boston chapter, things were even more informal than they are today in Sarnia-Lambton: people (trustees) would show up at a meeting and each pull out a $100 bill that they’d put in a paper bag to give to the presenter whose idea was selected to receive one of the grants.

Here in Sarnia-Lambton, the basic idea stands but a tiny bit more formality has been established through the Sarnia Community Foundation connection.

So who benefits from those Awesome Foundation grants?

The list of recipients has really been a “grab bag” of sorts over the years, says Lynn Baarschers, who has now retired as Dean, handing the reins over to Amanda Skerritt, with Courtney Gardner agreeing to serve as Social Media coordinator.

At the most recent pitch party, Emily Fortney, a music educator who works at Lakeroad Public School, was successful in her quest for a $1,000 grant to organize a meal that flows from a project called “Karam Kitchen” (Karam means hospitality or generosity in Arabic).

Using the money received, Fortney and her group will put on a meal for the Sarnia Lambton Native Friendship Centre, essentially “paying the experience forward to others in our community and for planning next year’s Karam Kitchen experiences.”

Fortney says she finds herself “called to the work of truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and refugee sponsorship, as well as creating classroom spaces built on restorative and anti-bias approaches.

To begin to list the various projects funded by the Awesome Foundation project would be unfair to the many who have pitched over the months and years since the group was formed, but as organizers have repeatedly said, visitors (and prospective trustees) are welcome to reach out anytime for more information on how they can be involved, as observers or active participants.

The Awesome Foundation can be reached by email: [email protected]

This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Lambton Shield magazine.

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