Debra Hewson’s dad would often say, “The true test of a person’s character is what they do when no one is watching.”
And that’s what makes Debra the proudest of Odlum Brown’s history of philanthropy over the company’s 94 years. “For every public act of giving, there are 10 unheralded acts of community kindness and support for those less privileged,” says Debra.
Last year, Odlum Brown’s generous corporate donations and sponsorships totalled in excess of $1 million. This figure includes direct employee contributions to charitable organizations such as United Way, an institution that Odlum Brown co-founder Victor Odlum first began supporting in the 1930s. It doesn’t account for the countless volunteer hours employees spend on community projects throughout the year.
Some of Odlum Brown’s charitable giving recipients are identified at the corporate level, but often employees are the ones to call attention to a charity they want to support in the community.
Odlum Brown employees take the long view – in investing, and in community giving. For the past 15 years, the firm has supported a non-profit East Vancouver child care centre. The entire Odlum Brown team provides Christmas gifts for each child and their siblings, along with a food hamper for each family. Debra is overcome when she walks through the reception area each holiday season and sees every square inch overflowing with gifts for the children and their families.
“It’s like 265 people giving an exponentially huge hug to the community, and for me that’s what philanthropy is all about. When I see all the gifts, I just think, ‘Wow, we can move the needle here.’ Isn’t that what everyone wants – to be able to say that they’ve changed something for the better?”
Now, Odlum Brown is partnering with Streetohome Foundation to ensure that individuals living in the street and in shelters as well as those at risk of homelessness have supports to move along their intended life path.
“I remember the first time I sat down with John McLernon and Rob Turnbull and what struck me were the measurable outcomes that had already been achieved in a relatively short period of time. They told me about all the buildings and the individuals who now have homes in the city. It wasn’t a lot of talk about what needs to be done; it was, ‘Here’s what we’re actually doing to make an impact.’”
“Streetohome wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but to leverage opportunities in the private sector for support. It felt like a real call to action.”
Debra strongly believes that corporations and individuals have a role to play in finding solutions for homelessness.
“When I walk by someone who is homeless, I wonder about their story and how they got to that place. What have we not done as a society to provide them with the resources they need? Where are the gaps that need to be filled?”
“I don’t believe it’s entirely the government’s responsibility to address homelessness. We are the community. This is where we live. It is our collective responsibility, whether we give our time, our money or our ideas.”
Debra is passionate about starting with housing first, and then building on supports such as employment and addiction recovery programs.
“We all define it differently, but we all need a home, a safe and secure place to live. That’s an absolute right for every citizen. Without that, if you have nowhere to go to feel safe, how can you even begin to make life changes? I really believe that. I believe it with my heart and soul. I have the privilege of working with 264 other people who believe it, too. How great is that?”