Port Carling 13-year-old Cailan Punnewaert is no stranger to advocacy or fundraising, and this summer, she’s paddling 75 kilometres in support of Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.
Last year, she raised just over $10,000 for the sanctuary by fundraising and spreading awareness at festivals and other events along with going door to door. Since those methods are on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cailan decided on a kayak fundraiser as a unique way to fundraise that would also help her and her mother Debbie get more connected to nature. The two of them plan to head out on August 16 with enough supplies for a week to 10 days since they don’t know how long their trip from Huntsville to Arnold’s Bay will take.
“We wanted to be at one with wildlife and nature when we’re raising money for wildlife, so then we were thinking of how long to do it,” Cailan said. “We’re like, ‘Okay, let’s do 75 kilometres’ because that’s something that will draw people’s attention: a 13-year-old going 75 kilometres to raise money.”
They plan to camp as they go, and Debbie says they’re happy to make it a group event if anyone wants to join in on part of the paddle or even the whole trip. A few people have expressed interest in accompanying them for a portion of the adventure, so they hope to have people join in this year and in future years.
“It would be nice to see it as an annual event and it would be nice to just get more awareness out there for the sanctuary,” Debbie said. “Not just Aspen Valley, but all sanctuaries because we learned a couple years ago that they’re not government funded…there’s a lot of people when she’s out fundraising that have never heard of Aspen Valley, so just getting the word out is even helpful.”
Cailan and Debbie first had the idea for the kayak adventure last summer, so they got to planning and eventually started promoting the fundraiser in early March. They debated putting it off due to the impacts of COVID-19, but when they received the first few donations, they were inspired to continue, knowing they’d have to work harder than ever to raise the money.
“We understand it’s just not a good time to be asking for money from a lot of businesses and individuals,” Debbie said. “We may not reach our goal that we set last year, but just getting out there, getting some awareness and whatever funds we can raise, it’ll be worth it.”
They’ll be sharing moments from the adventure on social media as long as they have cell battery, Debbie said, so community members who want to contribute in ways other than monetary donations can help spread the word by sharing Cailan’s posts from the trip. Those who are able to donate will receive a tax receipt and their money will go to a fund with no fees or deductions, so all donations go directly to Aspen Valley and the wildlife in their care.
Cailan said the cause is important to her in part because animals can’t help themselves. It’s difficult for local wildlife to thrive “because every time they find a home it’s getting destroyed to build something for us,” she said. She admires the staff at Aspen Valley for their steadfast dedication to the animals in their care and wildlife in general.
“They go out of their way to take in these animals. One person actually drove like halfway to St. Louis to get an animal,” Cailan said. “They’re just always there for all these animals because they know how hard it is for them to find homes these days.”
One of the reasons Cailan works so hard to raise money and awareness for Aspen Valley is because she can’t volunteer with their animal care program until she’s 18. “It’s another way that can actually be a part of this team and it just feels awesome to be there helping animals,” she said.
While her age may keep her from working directly with the animals, it doesn’t hold her back from much. Along with her advocacy work and fundraising for the sanctuary, Cailan contributes to the community by raising money for local hospitals, participating in climate activism and doing work with organizations like YWCA Muskoka and the Alzheimer’s Society.
At only 12 years old, Cailan was nominated for YWCA Muskoka’s annual Women of Distinction Award along with receiving the Youth and Philanthropy Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). Though she lends her support to many causes, her passion and dedication to protecting wildlife make her a star volunteer for Aspen Valley.
“I’ve never seen someone that young take such initiative and be so dedicated and committed to wildlife,” said Linda Glimps, director of fundraising and volunteer management for Aspen Valley. “We’re the beneficiaries of it because she’s in the community, and so she has chosen to support Aspen Valley, but really I think what she’s an advocate for is wildlife, as are we.”
The staff is always amazed to watch Cailan spread awareness and connect with others in crowds at events, Glimps said, and she certainly has a knack for fundraising.
“What’s really important though to our organization is that we have people like Cailan who absolutely go above and beyond as advocates for wildlife and the work that we do,” Glimps said. “That’s the most important thing. Obviously she does some fundraising and that benefits our organization because we are 100 per cent donor funded, but I think she just really sets an example of how youth and youth in the community can make a difference.”
Interested in supporting the kayak adventure in other ways? The Punnewaerts are looking for a lightweight canoe and other equipment to help them on their fundraising journey, so businesses and individuals that want to help sponsor the trip by providing supplies can contact Cailan via social media or email Debbie at email@example.com.