Seeds of change grow from remembrance

Katherine Wilton The Gazette

The Gainey family has turned its personal losses – the death of a mother, the drowning of a daughter – into opportunities to support causes close to their hearts

Anna Gainey was leafing through applications for grants from the newly established Gainey Foundation this summer, when one from a group that runs an organic farm in Laval caught her eye.

The program, called La Ferme Jeunes au Travail, employs marginalized young people for six months, teaching them farming techniques and other job skills while encouraging them to return to school or enter the job market.

The Gainey Foundation was set up to honour Cathy Gainey, the wife of Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey, who died more than a decade ago at 39, and his daughter, Laura, 25, who was lost at sea almost two years ago after being swept off a tall ship off the coast of Cape Cod.

Eighteen months after its launch, the foundation began issuing its first grants this month to organizations that had applied from across Canada.

Before finalizing a decision on which groups to support, Anna Gainey visited the potential recipients to ensure they met the foundation’s main aim, which is to support organizations that deal with children, the arts and the environment, causes close to Laura and Cathy Gainey’s hearts.

During a visit to the organic farm in September, Anna Gainey and her sister, Colleen, met the young people in the program and chatted with the staff about the work they do.

“We really felt that this is the kind of place where we could see Laura fitting in and getting her hands dirty,” said Anna Gainey, Bob Gainey’s mature and articulate 30-year-old daughter, who is the foundation’s director.

Sylvain Melançon, the executive director of La Ferme Jeunes au Travail, said he was thrilled to receive a grant from the foundation and would remember the visit from the Gainey sisters for a long time.

“They took a lot of time to listen to what we do here – they are very nice girls,” he said.

The foundation has also given money to a photojournalism and media-arts program run by the Montreal group Leave Out Violence (LOVE). “Laura was a big photographer and worked at a student paper,” Gainey said.

So far, the foundation has raised about $1 million. Money has come from private donations from Bob Gainey and the Canadiens’ owner, George Gillett. The Gaineys have also organized concerts in Montreal and Peterborough, Ont., and received support from Canadians who mailed in cheques from bake sales and hockey tournaments.

During a family gathering in Kamloops, B.C., where Anna Gainey’s brother, Steve, makes his home, the family decided to support five other organizations this year, including art schools in Ottawa and Peterborough, Bob Gainey’s hometown. They are also supporting an environmental education facility run by a camp in Peterborough.

The amount of each grant remains private.

Anna Gainey said that building the small, family-run foundation has been therapeutic and has helped her father and her siblings “move forward by supporting things my sister loved to do.”

“It has helped us – it has given us a focus and a family project that brings us together.”

In 1995, when Anna Gainey was 17, her mother, Cathy, died of a brain tumour, leaving Bob Gainey to raise four young children while working as general manager of the Dallas Stars.

“I think as a whole, we did very well as a family coming though that,” Gainey said.

In December 2006, the family suffered a second tragedy when Laura Gainey was swept overboard from the ship Picton Castle.

“Laura loved sailing – she was very happy on that ship, on any boat, really,” Anna Gainey recalled.

In the weeks following Laura’s death, the family was inundated with phone calls, emails and letters from people across Canada who wanted to reach out and help the family.

“We felt pretty helpless. We really couldn’t do anything,” Gainey recalled of the difficult days after Laura’s death.

In the ensuing months, some important family decisions would be made.

The family decided to create a foundation to honour Cathy and Laura Gainey by raising money to support causes they both would have loved.

Shortly after Laura’s death, Anna and Colleen, 23, made the decision to move back to Montreal to be closer to their grieving father.

“I think after a trauma like that you instinctively want to be close to your family and you need each other,” Gainey said. “We were fortunate to be able to do that. We are happy to be back here. I love Mont-real and have always felt at home here.”

Gainey left her job as a policy adviser in the Department of National Defence in Ottawa and now runs the foundation from an office in the Bell Centre, just a few doors away from her famous father. “We are neighbours,” she joked.

In January, she married fellow Montrealer Tom Pitfield, the son of Senator Michael Pitfield, who was Canada’s top civil servant during the Trudeau years. The couple met while Gainey was studying for a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics.

This summer, the Gainey family will return to Kamloops for the wedding of Bob Gainey’s son, Steve, 29, who is a minor hockey league player.

Gainey said she knows her father’s high profile has contributed to the foundation’s success.

“My father has worked very hard his whole life to be where he is today and it is nice that we can draw on that to honour my mother and sister,” said Gainey, who guards her father’s privacy as jealously as she does her own.

“People really feel like they know him, our family, our story. It is a bit ironic, given how private he is.”

Anna Gainey said she believes her mother and sister would be thrilled with the work they have done with the foundation.

“I think they would be happy to see us staying close and being there for one another and building something in their memory.”

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