Guest post: Roxanne Cote, Resource Development Manager at Distress Centre (DC), started at DC in 2008. She planned and executed the first Lend An Ear in 2011 (then under a different name) and has led the planning and execution every year since.

Image: Roxanne Cote (right) with keynote speaker Tom Jackson at Lend An Ear 2015. Photo by Gilmour Photography.

Katie Black speaking at “1 Hour out of 24” in 2011.

Lend an Ear is Distress Centre’s signature annual fundraising event that celebrates 10 years this month. Distress Centre relies on this event to raise critical funding for our 24/7 crisis services.

Looking back over the past 9 years has been an interesting reflection on the event’s history and our journey. There has been lots of laughter and tears, stories of inspiration and hope, and ongoing loyalty from our event sponsors and the community.

The early years

Lend An Ear’s (LAE) first event in 2011 was formerly called “1 hour out of 24.” We wanted to portray what it was like to be open all day and night. Our guests were invited to take an hour out of their day to learn about DC’s services and how important our existence was in the community. Angela Kokott, then host of Calgary Today on QR77, was our MC and hosted for the next 6 years. She was an inspirational addition to the event with her passion, energetic personality, knowledge of DC, and community spirit.

Volunteer Lorne Haggarty and DC staff Michelle Wickerson as Lend An Ear 2013.

Our first keynote speaker was Katie Black (see a video message from her!), now Acting General Manager, Community Services for FCSS. Katie was a crisis line volunteer in the early ‘80s and was the first hire for the Teen Line program, now called ConnecTeen. She continues to be passionate about how the City of Calgary and agencies work collaboratively to create and sustain a vibrant, healthy, safe and caring community for Calgarians.

Here are some interesting highlights: Tickets were free for the first two years. Even the name “Lend An Ear” was not decided on until 2013. Michelle Wickerson and I wanted a name that represented the work that we did at DC, which is primarily listening. We wanted people to “lend their ears” for one hour, as we shared our heartfelt stories and experiences of why we existed and how our services impacted so many. And what a great way to start the day than with breakfast and inspirational stories.

Creating a memorable experience

After LAE had built momentum and prestige in the community, we sold tickets. Dedicated guests returned year after year, as the event evolved, and we secured quality speakers. The premise was to create a memorable “experience,” so that our guests would bring their family, friends and colleagues the next year.

Roxanne Cote left) with keynote speaker Silken Laumann in 2013. Photo by Gilmour Photography.

There were many gifted keynote speakers that were fan favorites: Silken Laumann, Olympic medalist; Tom Jackson, musician and TV personality; Bob Wilkie, NHLer, author, coach and founder of I Got Mind. But Big Daddy Tazz, comedian and motivational speaker was one of the most memorable speakers we had, with many guests requesting to see him again. We were excited to bring him back for our 10th Anniversary and disappointed that we have to wait till 2021 due to COVID-19. But he sent a special video message that we’ll share later in the month.

Big Daddy Tazz has a unique and special way to take the audience on his personal journey dealing with his mental health struggles which makes you laugh and cry at the same time. He is honest about his daily struggle and really pulls the audience together.

The crowd enjoying Big Daddy Tazz’s keynote speech at Lend An Ear 2016. Photo by Gilmour Photography.

After seven years of getting up at 4 am to set up for a breakfast, LAE transitioned to an evening event in 2018. The event took on a fresh new look with a silent auction and/or raffle feature and the opportunity for the guests to network and socialize more.

Thank you

Many hands are needed to make the event successful behind the scenes. DC volunteers and staff were so helpful and devoted year after year and their commitment was very appreciated. Brett Gilmour with Gilmour Photography took his dedication to another level through his creative and artistic photography. All those years of memories would not have been captured without Brett.

Roxanne with keynote speaker Big Daddy Tazz at Lend An Ear 2016. Photo by Gilmour Photography.

Many musicians and artists have also donated their time and talent to Lend An Ear over the years, including Eily Aurora, a gifted harpist, guitarist Brett Gunther, musician Chuck Rose, pianist Kelly Schuller and blues-rock singer Bebe Buckskin.

Even though DC receives over 100,000 calls, texts, emails, chat and counselling sessions/year (with over 133,000 in 2019) it is rare to have someone share their personal story. Lee Horbachewski is a former caller to DC. She credits Distress Centre with saving her life in 2004. Since 2010, Lee has been a remarkable advocate and #1 supporter for DC. It has been a real privilege to have Lee speak at a couple of LAE events. DC recently named the Family Room after the Horbachewski family for their years of support to DC. Lee’s story and book, “A Quiet Strong Voice,” is raw and captivating. And when Lee speaks, EVERYONE LISTENS.

David Granirer delivering the keynote speech at Lend An Ear 2017. This was the last year that we held a breakfast. Photo by Gilmour Photography.

We could not host Lend An Ear without the ongoing commitment from our community partners. DC’s sponsors have been the KEY to LAE’s success. It is such a pleasure and honour to have community partners that continue to believe in our LAE vision.

Altitude Communications, LAN Solutions, GLJ Petroleum, and Viewpoint Foundation have been incredible sponsors that need a huge salute for keeping by our side as the LAE develops and progresses through the 10 years. Viewpoint has been integral in being the Keynote Speaker Sponsor and allowing some incredible memorable stories to leave a lasting impression for many. Great things are possible with teamwork and the sponsors make LAE possible.

Lee Horbachewski delivers the keynote speech at Lend An Ear 2018. Photo by Let’s Talk Lexi.

Lend An Ear 2020

Planning was underway for the 10th Anniversary of LAE on September 23, 2020. All the key components of the event were in place, then COVID-19 hit. As the pandemic continued, we made the difficult decision to cancel the event.

Not having Lend An Ear is like missing a close friend’s birthday or anniversary. It is the one annual event that I feel like I have been able to host for all my DC friends/family and I will miss seeing everyone this year. I have been very proud to see how LAE has evolved and to see many of the same faces year after year supporting LAE. It brings me great pleasure and satisfaction to be able to share with others my passion for not only the work that DC provides to the community, but to know that it is making a difference even to just one person knowing we exist.

Keynote speaker Bob Wilkie with guests at Lend An Ear 2019. Photo by Gilmour Photography.

Though LAE is cancelled this year, the need for the funds it raises remains. DC operates 24 hours a day and the need in the community is greater than ever. Staff and crisis volunteers are still saving lives every day at DC.

We will still celebrate 10 years of Lend An Ear through a non-event event – Lend An Ear Month – in September 2020. LAE will continue to raise critical funds for our 24/7 crisis services. We hope that YOU will join us on our LAE journey as we share inspirational stories from the past.

Visit throughout the month of September to see more!