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Private patrons: How Sarnia has become a better city through numerous acts of generosity

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Cathy Dobson

Three or four times a year Mayor Mike Bradley quietly, and with great discretion, ushers someone into his office who wants to donate large sums of money.

The dollars often finance new buildings that wouldn’t be possible without the help of wealthy benefactors.

Family names like Alix, Cox, Strangway, Gordon, Botma, Ciccarelli and McCaw are just a few of those who have made stunning gifts over the years.

Their names are associated with major capital projects like the public art gallery, expensive new park amenities, a senior’s community centre, the hospice, a youth centre and the local YMCA.

A substantial number of others donate anonymously without their name attached or any public thanks.

“I’m constantly thinking about where it would be best to put the money, because I never know when a benefactor may approach looking for ideas from me,” Bradley said.

On the other hand, the mayor said he can count on at least one donation request from a group in need every single week.

The trick is to find projects that community benefactors will feel personally connected to, said Lambton Warden Bev MacDougall.

“There is an amazing number of families who come through political channels wanting to give,” she said.

“You never know what’s going to move someone to be so generous. You see these acts of generosity and so many of the donors are unpretentious. They just do it and they take joy in contributing to their community.

“They make projects happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” MacDougall said.

She points to well over $2 million Norma and the late Edward Cox have invested in local parks to create a children’s splash pad, beautiful gardens, a skateboard park and more.

Municipalities often have trouble finding money to upgrade parks.

Then there was the $1.5 million donated by the Alix family to the downtown art gallery. That donation was announced as the gallery appealed for millions more in private donations.

“At the time, we had the federal money but we needed another $5 million from the community,” said MacDougall. “I would say the private philanthropy of the Alix family and others, like the Biehns, moved the mountain on that one.”

The family of the late Dr. J. Telford Biehn donated $100,000 to the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery in memory of their father, who was a Sarnia physician and avid art collector.

It’s interesting that many local philanthropists aren’t originally from Sarnia, the mayor noted.

The late Norm Alix, for example, moved here in the 1950s and worked hard to build his Steeplejack business.

“When Norm retired after a great deal of success, he told me he couldn’t take it with him,” Bradley said. “He also said that as he put in long hours to build up his business, he felt inspired by art galleries.”

The Alix family has established the Judith and Norman Alix Foundation, which is accepting funding applications (www.jnaf.ca) until Nov. 30. To date, the foundation has donated about $4 million, including $1 million toward a detox centre at Bluewater Health.

While big projects may be obvious, benefactors also finance many smaller ones, MacDougall added.

“There are thousands of people who quietly give money,” she said. “One that comes to mind is the late Catherine Wilson who gave away tens of thousands of dollars to St. Andrew’s Church and for physician recruitment.”

Wilson was a teacher at SCITS and frequently helped out students in need.

“I knew her personally,” said McDougall.  “She had a really big heart. There are so many stories like that in our community.”

Another involves the late Mayor Marcel Saddy, who had the foresight to support the creation of the Sarnia Community Foundation in 1985.

It was set up to administer donations and award them to various projects. When Saddy died, he left his house to the Foundation.

In 30 years, $3.6 million in donations have been distributed for everything from the Dow Centre for Youth to scholarships for the physically challenged, said executive director Jane Anema.

“There are many people out there who are very quiet about their philanthropy,” she said. “I get some really nice surprises in this job.”

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