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ROOTED: Portrait awards spotlight community leaders who give back

Newmarket's Alair Homes among honourees for their fundraising and volunteering to support individuals without homes and to battle homelessness

For the last 14 years, giving back for all the right reasons has put hundreds of York Region residents and organizations in the spotlight — even though that isn’t what inspires their kindness and generosity.

The Portraits of Giving awards first launched in Newmarket, Aurora and Richmond Hill, then soon spread across the region, to honour those who make our communities better places to live through volunteering and philanthropy, and also to share their stories so that others will be inspired to do the same. 

Awards founder Karen Merk, a York Region photographer, said she was personally inspired by the many people in our communities who donate time and resources for the benefit of others, and began the awards program to celebrate them and inspire others to do the same.

“The honourees are leaders who give back for the right reasons and often do not want to be in a spotlight, but feel honoured to be celebrated,” Merk said.

Merk takes photographs of each honouree and, with the support of community partners and sponsors, tours each community in the region with the exhibit, as well as holds a finale event at the end of the year.

“Each year, we discover even more truly remarkable leaders in our community to honour,” Merk said. “And the list continues. There are many more people to celebrate.”

Alair Homes partners David Butler and Jason Barnes were grateful to be recognized as the 2023 honourees for Newmarket for their longtime participation and support of Hockey Helps the Homeless York Region, which raises funds for local organizations that support individuals without homes and battle homelessness. 

Alair has raised more than $60,000 for 360°kids and Blue Door by participating in 10 Hockey Helps the Homeless tournaments with employees and industry colleagues, as well as providing sponsorships of nearly $19,000, and volunteering more than 120 hours. 

The Portraits of Giving award is a heart-warming “full circle” tribute for the co-partners of the custom home building and renovation firm to be recognized for giving back to those without homes in their communities.

They noted one of the programs at Blue Door that receives funds from Hockey Help the Homeless is Construct, an employment social enterprise that provides training, experience and support to help vulnerable individuals secure careers in the construction trades  — the training required to help fulfill the critical need and demand for more homes in Ontario. 

As well as taking part in the annual hockey tournaments, Alair supported A Better Tent City in 2022 in Kitchener/Waterloo — the firm has a second office there — helping 50 chronically homeless residents living in 42 tiny homes. 

“Alair believes that housing is a human right and when this urgent need arose, their team stepped in,” the company stated. “As builders who take great joy in bringing their clients' luxury custom home and renovation dreams to life, (we) believe it's equally important to give back to those much less fortunate.” 

Nationally, the Alair corporate brand has made its first major charity commitment to donate $100,000 over the next five years to support SickKids Foundation to specifically help fund the build of a new hospital. 

Butler and Barnes said their charity work and commitment to change the future inspired them to further educate themselves about the root causes of homelessness. 

“Admittedly, there was so much (we) didn't know, so much (we) still don't know, but (we) … are better humans for getting involved, learning, and asking others to join (us) in making a difference.”

At the Newmarket reception and exhibit last June, Newmarket Mayor John Taylor lauded the pair for being a “powerful example” of how to be part of the solution in addressing the widespread housing crisis.

“Nobody can do it alone, but without everybody trying, without everybody playing some sort of role in one of these important endeavors, we’ll never get close to eliminating homelessness. And while we have our work cut out for us over the coming years, I can tell that Alair Homes, and Jason and David, you’re committed to this for the long haul and that’s important, too,” he said.

He added that their actions also give hope to people who are experiencing homelessness.

“It actually means a ton to know that there’s people out there that are trying and working to make a difference, to try to better their lives, to make the community stronger, healthier and more sustainable in the future,” Taylor said.

The full list of 2023 honourees: