When Dan and John Whitton decide which local groups they will donate to each year, they look for the ones that help the most vulnerable.
Their recent donations of $100,000 to the River City Vineyard’s shelter and another $100,000 to the Inn of the Good Shepherd, coupled with their substantial generosity to so many other organizations particularly in the last five years, make the Whitton brothers this week’s Exceptional People.
“We grew up on a farm near Oil Springs in a family of eight kids, so we know what it’s like to not have a lot of extra money around,” said Dan who started Progressive Auto Sales Sarnia 23 years ago with his brother.
The brothers also own BMW Sarnia and Sarnia Volkswagen, as well as the Ford dealership in Wallaceburg.
“We’ve been in a position the last few years to be able to help, and I think if we can help, we should,” said Dan.
“We’re not interested in using our money to buy a new kitchen countertop or a fancy new suit,” he said. “We’d rather try to focus on the most vulnerable, the marginalized people.”
Dan said his family has been fortunate in business and wants to support the community that supports them.
When Audrey Kelway, an administrator at River City Vineyard church, heard about the size of the Whitton’s donation, she was shocked.
“It’s just mind blowing,” she said. “We depend on donations and ones like this don’t happen often.
“This totally blew us away.”
Dan and John, who gave generously to Bluewater Health’s mental health and addictions programs last year, went to Mayor Mike Bradley for advice on where to donate this year.
“I asked him who could use some money,” said Dan. “He told me about River City’s shelter and their need. Otherwise, I wasn’t really aware of what was there.”
Last week, he and John took a tour of the emergency shelter in the church’s basement on Mitton Street and saw the expansion work that’s been in progress for about three years.
The shelter currently has 28 beds for men and is full every night, said Audrey.
“It breaks my heart, but we have to turn people away,” she said.
The expansion will provide 16 new beds for women and an additional 25 for men. It’s likely Sarnia has never had such a large homeless population, or people living rough, and the need for more shelter beds is greater than ever.
But River City hasn’t been able to finish the expansion because donations were slow to come in and construction costs keep rising.
Now Audrey is hopeful the Whitton’s $100,000 will get the expansion done in the next few months.
“We just love them for it,” she said. “Our ability to move ahead is based entirely on donations. We rely on the community.
“Sometimes we barely make it through the month but we always manage somehow.
“God is good. I think I might have screamed a little when I heard about all of this.”
As for Dan, he said he felt even better about giving $100,000 once he toured the shelter.
“The heart those people have…they have the best of intentions,” he said. “John and I know what it’s like to sacrifice and make use of every penny you get.
“That’s how we were raised. We started with nothing and had to scrimp and save. So I could really relate to the work they are doing at River City.
“Now when I see people who are helping themselves, I want to help them.”
On top of the $100,000 the Whittons are giving River City Vineyard for the shelter, and the $100,000 to the Inn of the Good Shepherd, the brothers are also giving $25,000 to the Huron House Boys Home this year as well as $25,000 to Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
If you’d like to nominate someone for The Journal’s Exceptional Person of the Week, send their name and your reason to [email protected].