BURLINGTON — Nearly 400 people filled the event space in the Dudley H. Davis Center at the University of Vermont for the Second annual Culinary Classic to benefit the Cancer Patient Support Foundation, or CPSF.
The mid-November event brought together six of the area’s top chefs to compete for the Culinary Cup and People’s Choice Awards, and also featured both silent and live auctions and a dramatic “Mission Moment” on-site donation drive that followed a moving video presentation on the impact of CPSF in people’s lives.
Christian Kruse, executive chef of the Basin Harbor Club in Ferrisburgh, took home the Culinary Cup in the judged competition, and Narin Phanthakhot, executive chef at Butch + Babe’s in Burlington earned the People’s Choice award, but the real winners were those who benefit from CPSF supports. This year’s Classic raised more than $112,000 to help CPSF provide emergency assistance to cancer patients, and their families, who are experiencing financial hardship due to their illness and treatment.
Elizabeth Warren, who, along with husband Todd Warren, owns Vermont Custom Closets and Otter Creek Awnings in Williston, is a member of the CPSF board and served as the committee chair for this year’s Culinary Classic.
“CPSF’s mission is to support cancer patients locally, and the thing they do that really resonates with me is the Emergency Fund,” Warren said. “When you’re lower-income, or just paycheck to paycheck, and have (a) cancer diagnosis — then suddenly also a financial crisis — that’s a huge problem. CPSF provides emergency funds and, for me, that is a real motivator to help raise money.”
Warren said CPSF offers other important programs, such as psychological and nutritional counseling, but she emphasized the organization’s emergency fund provides about $15,000 per month to area cancer patients and families.
Other chefs whose restaurants donated food, time and talents to the event included Donnel Collins, executive chef at Leunig’s Bistro & Café; David Hoene, owner and executive chef at Pauline’s Café; Shawn Calley, executive chef at Burlington Country Club; and Kevin Sprouse, executive chef at The Farmhouse. Warren also cited Lori Carmichael, of Soirees by Lori, for providing a dessert table. “We didn’t have one at last year’s challenge, and she provided amazing desserts for 400 people,” Warren said.
More than 60 area businesses donated items to a silent auction that raised more than $10,000, and three impressive live-auction packages brought in another $17,000 in lively bidding led by Tim Kavanagh of Game Shows VT who, along with Candy Weston of Weston Designs, served as co-emcee for the night.
“To raise over $100,000 with this event is huge, and will really help fund CPSF’s good work,” Warren said.
Sarah Lemnah, executive director at CPSF, provided perspective on what such funds can mean. “We are told every day by the patients we serve that they are more scared of the money than the cancer,” she said. “For many of these families, they struggle to feed their children or keep a roof over their head due to the cost of cancer treatment and the additional travel costs, while oftentimes living on a reduced income.”
Because many Vermonters are self-employed or work in the service industry, Lemnah said, “When they do not work, they do not get paid. We have patients who have delayed treatment simply because they could not afford the cost of the gasoline to get them to the hospital. We have had families leave the clinic on a Friday saying they had no food for their children for the weekend, so we have emergency visa cards for them.”
The Emergency Fund helps with expenses — from gasoline, home heating, utilities, housing, childcare, and food to the cost of deductibles, co-pays, and prescriptions — for patients whose incomes go down due to the inability to work during treatment, just as their expenses skyrocket. In 2015, CPSF awarded over $169,000 directly to local cancer patients and their families.
“The Cancer Patient Support Foundation is the only local nonprofit that provides support for cancer patients and their families throughout the state of Vermont and Northern New York,” Lemnah said. Lemnah is the first executive director of CPSF, which was founded 15 years ago by a group of volunteers.
Warren said she took on the role of chair for the committee planning the 2nd Annual Culinary Classic in January. “I knew if we put our minds to it this could be special,” she said. “And it was a huge success. Less because of what I did as that I happened to know who to put on the committee – we really have the A-team.”
She cited the contributions of Lemnah for pulling together marketing efforts, and Heidi Auclair, co-owner of Morway’s Moving & Storage, as event planner, as well as the entire committee and dozens of area businesses who donated goods and services directly to the live and silent auctions, or to help make the event happen.
“We had $25,000 in in-kind sponsorship for marketing,” she said. “Free Press Media provided both articles and ads, and WCAX developed both public-service announcements and our mission video.
In that video, people who have been impacted by CPSF — including emcee Tim Kavanagh — shared personal stories from their respective journeys with cancer. When the video ended, the house lights came up and Kavanagh challenged those in attendance to give. “We’re going to raise $10,000 right here in this room in five minutes,” he said. Together, the room exceeded that goal by making a collective $18,000 donation to the cause.
That meant a lot to CPSF, according to Lemnah. “The needs of local cancer patients are huge, and the foundation relies on the support of the local community,” she said, adding that support from local businesses was especially vital. “We would not be able to provide this level of support without the business community’s generosity.”
Warren led the effort to gain sponsorships during the lead-up to the Culinary Challenge, and was able to secure $50,000 from about 17 different area businesses, organizations and donors. “That includes $15,000 from our platinum, title-sponsor, NorthCountry Federal Credit Union (NCFCU),” Warren said.
Bob Morgan, CEO at NCFCU, said sponsorship of the Culinary Classic was a great match for the credit union’s vision for community engagement. “We have four explicit stakeholder groups — our members, the community, our employees, and volunteers,” Morgan said. “We try to attract and develop, and then enhance the relationships with each.”
In CPSF, Morgan said, “We found an organization working to make a tremendous difference in the lives of people at a time of crisis and great need. What better way to leverage that work for even broader benefit than to support it?”
Morgan said he was sure CPSF directly impacted individuals and families throughout NCFCU stakeholder groups. “We envision a long-term relationship with CPSF,” he added.
Reflecting on this year’s event, Warren said, “I spent a lot of time since January thinking how we would get there, and how it would turn out. But then to see it happening, taking on a life of its own, and to feel the energy in the room — you can only hope that it can happen.”
Warren said the event accomplished two goals. “Obviously, it successfully raised funds, but also helped market CPSF — to let people know who we are.” She said it also aligned with some personal values.
“Supporting cancer patients locally is very important to me, and to my husband Todd, who serves on the Community Leadership Council for the UVM Cancer Center,” she said. The Warrens are also involved in other activities, including Rally Against Cancer at UVM.
“Cancer touches every single person’s life,” Warren said. “We have employees, clients, neighbors and family who are touched. I think we all need to help in this effort as a community, and it’s not just about money, either. If we each bring the talents we have to a community effort, together it can get done. Somehow, we all make it happen.”
More information, including listings of many more major sponsors of this year’s Culinary Challenge, is available at www.cpsfvt.org.