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Distress Centre Calgary / 50 Stories  / 50 Stories Part 26: World’s Largest Garage Sale – Fundraising in the ’90s

50 Stories Part 26: World’s Largest Garage Sale – Fundraising in the ’90s

Image: A musician performing at the 1993 Megathon.

As requested by the Board, leadership began to look seriously at ways to raise funds internally. Volunteering at casinos was ongoing, raising $13,000 in 1990, rising to $65,000 in 1999. Megathons, where donors walked, jogged and rollerbladed to raise money, began in 1991 and continued through 1996. Barb Litchinsky comments:

“Lots of grants from organizations don’t cover administration. What do they think, that we operate out of an orange crate? When I started there were casinos, and there were casinos all the time I was there. Any time we got a new Board member they would say how can you do casinos, gambling is an issue you deal with, this is a conflict of interest? I always had to explain that we are not moralists, we are there to help people who are problem gamblers. I didn’t see that as a conflict, and it was the easiest way to raise a whole lot of money in a hurry.”

''Any time we got a new Board member they would say how can you do casinos, gambling is an issue you deal with, this is a conflict of interest? I always had to explain that we are not moralists, we are there to help people who are problem gamblers. I didn’t see that as a conflict, and it was the easiest way to raise a whole lot of money in a hurry.'' - Barb Litchinsky

In June of 1993, Mark McLoughlin, a high-profile Calgary Stampeder, held a Bike-A-Thon for the Teen Line at Prince’s Island Park. Music was by the Earthtones, care of volunteer Scott who played in the group. Volunteer Krista Moroz remembers the event:

“It was the 10th anniversary of Teen Line. We did a walk/run, 5K at Prince’s Island. There was a lot involved, in terms of planning. The Stampeders provided a celebrity personality, there was entertainment on the stage, food vendors, prizes, route planning and permissions to be secured. It was a really fun time, a great way to celebrate 10 years and raise a little bit of money and awareness.

Performers at the 1993 Megathon.

In 1994, the DC/DC was one of the United Way Donor Choice designated agencies. This meant people could donate their United Way contributions specifically to Distress Centre, and the Centre received a one-time gift $46,602.95 in addition to normal United Way funding. Distress Centre staff in turn participated in the United Way Bed Race and had a representative on the campaign launch. This supportive relationship remains in place today.

The World’s Largest Garage Sale

Even with selling Entertainment books and holding book fairs to raise money, fundraising did not bring in a lot of dollars, until July 1997. The first World’s Largest Garage sale created a welcome 400% increase in money raised. Joan Roy, counsellor, remembers it as a lot of fun:

“We rented the Big 4, and other organizations could rent stalls from us. Staff were asked to volunteer and help out. I got there in the morning and people were lined up all around the front and down the block, and it was like that all day. The place was packed. We were doing everything we could think of to raise money. We sold old computers, we sold everything, people had a blast. It was fun volunteering, and seeing other agencies involved. Everyone was going around buying each other’s treasures.”

''The place was packed. We were doing everything we could think of to raise money. We sold old computers, we sold everything, people had a blast. It was fun volunteering, and seeing other agencies involved. Everyone was going around buying each other’s treasures.'' - Joan Roy

Barb Litchinsky also remembers it well:

An ad for the World’s Largest Garage Sale.

“The idea came from a Board member, Richard Anderson, from Regina. He said they had a really large garage sale for one of the their agencies and it was quite successful. I loved the suggestion because it addressed a number of different goals. First of all, partnerships and collaboration, so why not broaden it to the sector? It was an event that the clients, volunteers and staff could all participate in.

“I sent out a letter to all the Executive Directors in the sector and I got an overwhelming response. The letter started with ‘Do you need money? Are your volunteers and Board members experiencing fundraising fatigue? Would you be interested in joining Distress Centre in a risk-free, low-cost fundraising event?’ $50 per booth, to cover the tables, electric drops, security, promotion, all of that. The phone was ringing off the hook, the ED’s loved the idea. It was a huge undertaking.

“At the time we were in an old, old building in east Calgary and it was a rabbit warren of rooms with storage all over and wide halls. It was terrific, because we had to store all this merchandise that the volunteers, staff, callers, and clients started bringing in.

“Every single hallway was packed with items. You took a client into your office and you had to maneuver around stuff. There were so many details that I learned from Richard, like we needed a Brink’s van to transport cash. We were on the radio, TV, every kind of free advertising, plus we paid a lot of money for banners across all the bridges. We had the whole main floor of the Big 4. Richard borrowed walkie-talkies from his dragon-boat racing club. It was new to all of us.

Performers at the 1993 Megathon.

“The day before one of the counsellors said, ‘Barb, what if nobody comes?’ I didn’t sleep all night. We advertised it to open at 10 am so we would have time for set up. I got there before 8 am, and there were line-ups right out to Spiller Road. I went out to look at the lines, to try and figure out how many people were there. I think maybe 12,000. I starting apologizing to people in the line, saying this is our first time. We grossed around $100,000 in that one day, for all the agencies.”

''The day before one of the counsellors said, ‘Barb, what if nobody comes?’ I didn’t sleep all night. We advertised it to open at 10 am so we would have time for set up. I got there before 8 am, and there were line-ups right out to Spiller Road.'' - Barb Litchinsky

Bikers at the 1993 Megathon.

Suzanne remembers the clean-up:

“The Stampede was furious with us, because the agencies were supposed to do their clean-up and they didn’t. They had a trade show coming in and we were supposed to be cleaned up and out of there. People had left whatever they didn’t sell, as well as their garbage. I said let’s go to Cash Corner where you could find day labour. I got out of the car and said, ‘Anyone want to come?’ We paid well. They came, and there were massive amounts of books, so many of the men asked if it was okay to take some of the stuff. We said take everything, we just need to get it out of here. It was a win-win.”

In 1997 Distress Centre became a recipient of the Calgary Herald Christmas Fund. The money was to be used to improve the physical premises in the old or new space, whichever leasing agreement came to be. The second Garage Sale doubled in size, including a poster contest to advertise the crisis line with shoppers voting at the sale. Proceeds were also received from a Book Fair and casino.

The rise and fall of the World’s Largest Garage Sale

The third and final Garage Sale was held in 1999. Barb talks about the rise and fall of the event:

“The second year the other agencies were interested. By the third year they were not. They told me they were not raising the kind of money they wanted to raise. We were doing fine, but their clients and staff didn’t have any more stuff left.

From the 1993 Megathon.

“Coincidentally, I got a fax from one of the big oil companies through United Way, and they had an enormous number of computers to get rid of. They were free, but you had to pick them up. I said we will take all of them, and explained the garage sale. We filled the agency with computers.

“We talked to one of the young volunteers about it. I didn’t know anything about technology. He said, first of all you have to have permission from whomever, Microsoft or someone, you can’t resell without permission. I did that. And they have to be wiped clean. They had already deleted the files but it wasn’t all that he thought needed to be done. We needed more electrical drops. He got it so every computer was in working order, so the shoppers could try them. We advertised this extensively, so again we had a huge turnout.

“The next year we moved, so there was no storage. The other agencies were not interested and we didn’t have a new gimmick. It was very exciting for the 3 years but had run its course. It was a lot of fun and raised a lot of money.”

''It was very exciting for the 3 years but had run its course. It was a lot of fun and raised a lot of money.'' - Barb Litchinsky

Although fundraising methods are ever-changing, the need for such events remains constant over time. Agencies continue to be creative around raising much needed money.

Distress Centre will be sharing a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. We hope you will join us on this journey. All stories can be found here.

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