May 25, 2023

2023 Giving Day awards celebrate community champions

Honorees helped make this year’s fundraiser a record-breaker
MIST Chair Dr. Matthew Hill and Dr. Rob Hunt at the Hustle with Hunt Spin-a-Thon
MIST Chair Matthew Hill, left, Rex, and Rob Hunt at the Hustle with Hunt Spin-a-Thon. Victoria Truong, University of Calgary

The University of Calgary has honoured community members for their extraordinary effort and enthusiasm in helping make UCalgary Giving Day 2023 a record-breaking success.

This year, nearly 2,600 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of UCalgary came together to raise more than $2.5 million to support student awards and experiences, research, faculty initiatives, and more — and the recipients of the second annual UCalgary Giving Day Community Champion Awards played major roles in setting those records.

Outstanding Reach Award: Rob Hunt for the Hustle with Hunt Spin-a-Thon in support of MIST

Hunt on vacation in Italy in 2022

Hunt on vacation in Italy in 2022.

Rob Hunt

Local dentist Dr. Rob Hunt had been thinking about mental health after surviving a near-fatal cardiac arrest during spin class last year. And, while someone in his position might be focused on heart health, Hunt was struck by the notion of how being in that class saved his life.

“If I had been alone, I would be dead,” says Hunt, DDS. “Being around people saved me. And that’s so important for your mental health, too.”

And so the Hustle with Hunt Spin-a-Thon was born, to both thank those who were in his spin class that day and to support MIST: the Mental Health Initiative for Stress and Trauma. Established as an enduring legacy for Michael McClay, who died by suicide in 2021, MIST explores the ways stress and trauma affect the brain within the aim of helping improve education and treatment for those with mental health challenges.

On April 22, nearly 200 people joined Hunt at YYC Cycle to sweat it out and show their support. The event raised more than $54,000, upping MIST’s Giving Day 2023 fundraising total to more than $313,000. Gifts also came in from those unable to attend, bringing the total number of donors to nearly 250.

“When you have an inspirational story and an inspirational cause, people want to be a part of it,” Hunt says.

“MIST triggered me,” adds Hunt, who says he lost five friends to suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We need to be able to talk about mental health and suicide. That awareness can save a life.”

Outstanding Impact Award: The Dinos Alpine Ski Team for the Alpine Skiing Fund

The Dinos Alpine Ski Team at Nakiska Ski Area

The Dinos Alpine Ski Team at Nakiska Ski Area.

Tim Zarski

When you think varsity athletics, football, hockey and the like come to mind. But, with the mountains just a one-hour drive from campus, skiing is a natural fit for UCalgary.

The Dinos Alpine Ski Team is expecting to have more than two dozen athletes on its roster next year — impressive for a program established and grown during the pandemic. Given that hustle, however, its Giving Day success isn’t so surprising.

“It’s amazing to see our ski community come together and support this university ski team,” says Tim Zarski, alpine skiing program director and head coach. “Without that type of support, we’d have a gap to fill in funding the transportation, strength conditioning, uniforms and other operational expenses for this team.”

The team raised $130,000 from 48 donors, and, with UCalgary matching eligible gifts, many of those donations will go even further.

“It’s a great opportunity when you can double your impact through Giving Day,” Zarski says.

He credits the program’s board of directors for the win. “It’s a real grassroots effort,” Zarski says. “We have members on our board who have been at the table for four or five years, working to establish the program and now promoting Giving Day to their networks.”

Donor support is particularly important with the program being so young. “The board of directors is working toward sustainability and the introduction of scholarships to the team,” says Zarski. “The sooner we can introduce these amazing benefits, the better the experience we can provide student-athletes.”

Giving Day makes a big difference, he adds: “Without it, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

Rising Star Award: The Wiens and McKenna families for the Grayson McKenna Memorial Fund

Grayson and Kat at her wedding in 2022

Grayson and Kat at her wedding in 2022.

Tess Lucas Photography

“We were like peanut butter and jelly,” says Katlyn McKenna Danylo of her younger brother, Grayson McKenna. “Very different, but very complementary.”

Giving Day came with mixed emotions for her this year. As the annual giving adviser with UCalgary’s Office of Advancement, McKenna Danylo was already heavily involved in the campaign, but she took it beyond the office for Giving Day 2023, using it as an opportunity to pay tribute to her late brother.

Grayson, who studied at UCalgary from 2019 to 2021, was a car enthusiast, enjoyed the outdoors and loved animals, at one time training their cat to ride in the family car. He also struggled with his mental health, leading to his death by suicide in September 2022 at just 24 years old.

“I knew I wanted to do something for him,” McKenna Danylo says, and she began feeling ready to take that step in the lead up to Giving Day. “He was happiest in Calgary and loved the university. It felt like the right place to start.”

She and her parents, Jan Wiens and Dave McKenna, created the Grayson McKenna Memorial Fund with the goal of supporting survivors of suicide loss and advancing mental health research at UCalgary. Together, they rallied more than 100 people to raise nearly $8,000.

“I can’t even describe what it means to me,” says McKenna Danylo of the results. Like the fund itself, the outpouring of support for it has helped her family move forward in their grief.

“I need the ability to still have my brother in my life,” she says. “This fund allows me to give him birthday and Christmas presents every year — and to see a difference in somebody else’s future.”

Advocate Award: Amandeep Kaur Kaler for the Sikh Studies Endowment Fund

Amandeep Kaur Kaler

Amandeep Kaur Kaler.

Amandeep Kaur Kaler

Amandeep Kaur Kaler, BA’21, came away from the Sikh Studies class taught by Dr. Harjeet Singh Grewal, PhD, with more than a better understanding of the Sikh diaspora — she felt seen.

“Academia can be a scary place if you don’t see anyone else like yourself,” says Kaler, who, like Grewal, is a member of the Sikh community. “Having Dr. Grewal there, teaching and conducting research, I felt like there was space for us here.”

That space is much more than a single class at UCalgary. The university is home to one of the only Sikh Studies programs outside of Punjab — and the Sikh Studies Endowment Fund, which Kaler tirelessly championed this Giving Day, will secure its future.

Kaler’s interest in the program can be traced back to that class she took in 2018, but it was the following year that saw her involvement ramp up. “I went back to see if Dr. Grewal was still around, peeked my head into his office and he never really got rid of me,” she says with a laugh.

From there, Kaler took on Giving Day with gusto. She and a group of dedicated volunteers ran the program’s social media accounts, called people for donations, attended community events at the Gurdwara (a Sikh place of learning and worship) and more.

Their efforts grew the endowment fund by more than $62,000 from 230 donors, ensuring the Sikh Studies Program fosters meaningful research, education and community engagement for years to come.

“I learned so much about myself in those classes,” says Kaler. “And, just as I took classes in Christianity, Judaism and other religions, others can learn about me, and get that history [of Sikhs and Sikhism] through an academic lens.”

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. If your life or someone else’s is in danger, call 911 for emergency services or call the Calgary Distress Center at 403-266-4357 or Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566.

The University of Calgary is committed to enhancing the mental health of students, faculty and staff and provides a variety of mental health resources. Learn more about our Campus Mental Health Strategy and Suicide Awareness and Prevention Framework.

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