Written by Benjamin Rempel
A lighter approach to an important cause
Even when he’s stressed, Luke Anderson, Co-Founder and Executive Director of StopGap Foundation, understands the importance of positive vibes. He has to. His company is founded on them. “One of our core values is having fun,” he says from his Toronto office. “And we try to get that message out there. We want to paint a picture of levity!”
StopGap has operated in Toronto since 2011. It works towards raising awareness about the importance of a barrier-free and inclusive society while bringing a lighter tone to its work. “We want people on our team that can roll with that intention and can speak that language, to be playful with this challenging issue of accessibility,” Anderson says.
StopGap accomplishes its mandate through a variety of programming including volunteer-led ramp-building events, corporate team building workshops, and innovative school programs. StopGap has also been featured on radio and TV – including the Rick Mercer Report! To accomplish these and other key initiatives, StopGap engages in fundraising … ahem, FUNraising.
Anderson and his team of staff, volunteers, and board members are in the final days of planning for the fifth annual Ramp Up! FUNraiser – an event featuring local artists and community mobilizers with the goal to further accessibility projects in Toronto. “We’re selling tickets now, coordinating volunteers. Board members are ‘all hands-on deck!’” Anderson says, scanning emails from his modified computer.
Anderson manipulates a head mouse, on-screen keyboard, and voice recognition program to finalize event details. He takes his calls over speaker, his smartphone affixed to the arm of his wheelchair.
“We’ve got 42 art ramps to auction off. We’re hoping singer and songwriter Tim Moxam will sing his latest song which was inspired by the work of StopGap,” Anderson exclaims in a raspy voice. He attacks an itch just below his reddish hair, auburn stubble lining his cheeks and throat. His cadence is slow and methodical, occasionally leaping into excitable chatter. His sneaky smile is never far from the surface. “I always want to keep it fresh,” he says of the annual event. “We don’t want to stagnate.”
Leadership comes from the heart
Anderson admits he took on too much the first four years the event ran and it drained him. In 2018, he didn’t even attend, hospitalized with a kidney infection stemming from exhaustion. This year his approach is more purposeful. He is cognizant of increased workload, focused on coaching rather than doing. “I try my best to delegate, give people the stuff I’ve had in my head for the past four years, empower them.”
Along with empowerment, Anderson approaches his staff, volunteers and partners with relentless positivity. His phone calls are peppered with “Fantastic!”; “Solid!”; “My day’s going great!” Even his written communication is steaming with energy, ending emails with High Fives!
StopGap Board Chair Adil Dhalla appreciates Anderson’s positive style of leadership. “He’s so passionate, he just keeps going,” he says. “He leads with love. It’s in his DNA. I would follow Luke regardless of what he’s doing because [of] how he treats people.”
Dhalla adjusts the brim of his hat and begins to recount a painful memory. He describes how he and Anderson were invited to an awards ceremony honouring the work of StopGap. But when they arrived, only then did they realize the venue was inaccessible.
“[Anderson’s] reaction went from pain to sadness to compassion and empathy,” Dhalla says. He explains how Anderson had a pointed discussion with the organizers but also used the opportunity to educate them. “His ability to transform his pain into action …” He trails off for a second before concluding it was that moment which convinced him that Anderson could affect change. “This is a leader I want to get behind!” he says.
The value of a positive workspace
Anderson waves to nearly everyone as he whirs across the worn hardwood floor towards the communal lunch area. Alternative music plays from a corner of exposed brick, the smell of pizza and coffee pinching the air. The hum of Spadina traffic drones in through an open window, the noise nearly matched by the vibrant conversations from the couches and bar stools. A continual march of heavy footsteps plods throughout the cramped area, the building creaking and moving, full of life. Four bright-eyed assistants span the welcome desk. You might think you were checking into a popular hostel for the weekend if it wasn’t for the lack of bunks.
Anderson works in a shared workspace operated by the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI): a social enterprise geared towards community mobilizers and start-ups with a social mandate. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without this office space,” Anderson admits of his organization’s progress. He speaks highly of the mission of CSI. “It’s a strong community. It’s led to great partnerships.”
He nudges up to the lunch table and speaks about maintaining a positive mindset at work. “I’ve been learning to tap into my inner child, become consciously aware of that aspect of me,” he says. “That’s why we use brightly-coloured ramps. And we have this character called Ramp Man who’s just a goofball. We want our team to be out at street festivals and use that type of tone … That’s the game plan. To attract a lot of attention, to have fun with it.”
“We need more stories that are fun, joyful and creative about mobility,” Dhalla says. “People won’t engage if it’s always about the hardships.” He smiles when discussing the energy Anderson brings to the Foundation. “He’s the face of the organization. Everyone wants to be around Luke. I’m a member of the unofficial fan club!”
In the lunch room, Anderson begins mawing down on his salad, a hodge-podge of ingredients: kale, pear, cabbage, cheese and hummus. “Hummus makes everything better,” he muses. He pokes at his meal with a modified fork, one that slips into his arm brace, angled to move easily from bowl to mouth.
Driving Rick Mercer
It’s over lunch that Anderson brings up his appearance on the Rick Mercer Report. “It was challenging,” he admits. “I was trying to keep up with Rick, with the wit and the puns … I reached a point in the interview where I had to raise the white flag. He’s the clown. He’s the one the show is about. And then he crashed my van–”
Anderson squints and starts laughing. “So, Rick’s driving. And he says he’s a shitty driver. He puts it into gear, but the wrong gear. He was ready to go forward and the van went in reverse.” Anderson laughs again. “Confirmed! He wasn’t lying. He is a shitty driver.”
Anderson describes how that moment changed the tone of the interview and made it less intimidating. “I think that shifted things for him too.”
Since the show, Mercer has become somewhat of an advocate for the Foundation. “We catch up on texts. He’s trying to get a ramp project started in St. John’s, his hometown,” Anderson says.
Ready for Ramp Up!
Anderson’s afternoon is spent phoning potential national partners, processing ramp requests, outlining a speaking engagement with the organizer, and of course, confirming a multitude of details for his flagship fundraiser.
At Ramp Up! Anderson will take the stage towards the end of the night. “I get supercharged from that. Total adrenaline rush,” he says.
And similar to past years, he will thank everyone for their support and financial contributions. The money is greatly needed. StopGap wouldn’t function without a strong donor base and regular fundraising efforts.
But Anderson admits he goes through the stress each year for other reasons. “The value is the fun and the awareness it generates. I can’t put a price on it. That feeling of togetherness, bringing people together, celebrating. That’s worth the investment!”
StopGap’s Ramp Up! FUNraiser takes place November 21, 2019 in Toronto. To learn more about the event or the StopGap Foundation, visit www.stopgap.ca.
Benjamin Rempel holds a Master’s of Public Health and is a Member-at-Large for Health Promotion Ontario. He lives and works in Toronto. Contact him at: www.linkedin.com/in/benjaminrempel