Alberta sunflower growers make wishes come true

Paradise Hill Farm owners leapt at the chance to help program that grants wishes to seriously ill children

Farmers aren’t typically in the business of granting wishes — but then again, 2020 isn’t your typical year.

And this year, Tony and Karen Legault of Paradise Hill Farm put their particular brand of magic to work, bringing some much-needed sunshine to sick children in southern Alberta with a little help from their sunflower field.

It all started when April Stallings of Make-A-Wish Canada was looking for creative ways to raise funds for the non-profit’s wish-granting program.

“In any given year here in southern Alberta, we grant about 200 wishes,” said Stallings, manager of resource development for the organization. “But we’ve been having a particularly tough time since COVID-19 started. People are struggling financially, and donations are way down.”

Karen and Tony Legault, with son Luke, made the official big-cheque presentation to Make-A-Wish Canada at the start of September after a whirlwind sunflower season.
photo: Supplied

One day, Stallings caught wind of a beautiful sunflower field near Nanton and wondered if there was a way to turn it into a fundraiser for the organization.

“I reached out to see if they would even want to talk about this, and not only did they want to talk about it, but they called me back with a fully formed plan of what they were going to do,” she said.

“They just took it and ran with it. It was beautiful.”

In the end, Paradise Hill Farm raised a total of $1,250 by renting their sunflower field out by the hour for socially distanced photo shoots and donating a portion of the proceeds to Make-A-Wish Canada.

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“We literally called them a week before the sunflower field opened, and for them to have done that with little to no planning is amazing,” said Stallings.

For the Legaults, the decision to get involved was an easy one, despite — in fact, because of — the pandemic.

“When things get tough, it’s usually the time that everybody needs some help,” said Tony, who runs the mixed operation and greenhouse in addition to five acres of sunflowers with his wife and four kids.

“This is the time you need to help people, not when we’re all booming along with no cares about anything. What help are we really doing then? We need to help when the help is needed.”

The pandemic hasn’t been easy on the farm either — the couple had to readjust their vegetable packing line in response to the crisis, increasing their staff from 15 to 26 over three shifts to ensure their safety during the busy summer months.

“We felt that, as long as we walked out of this with a greenhouse still functioning, even if it didn’t make money, that was a big win this year,” said Tony.

“And we figured if there was a way that we could help somebody else at the same time, why not?”

‘Win-win’ partnership

The response to their fundraiser was beyond what they could have dreamed, he added.

“Everything sold out for 18 days straight,” he said of the 210 bookings they received. “Twelve hours a day, literally from 7 a.m. until dark, it was booked solid. We’re estimating that we had somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 people actually go through the field in that time, but never in a big group.”

The couple also donated the use of the field to six Make-A-Wish families for their own safe, socially distanced photo shoots.

“One was pretty special,” said Tony. “The young guy had actually just graduated but because there was no ceremony, they did his graduation photos in the field.”

“For the families that came out, even though it was only one day, it made quite an impact,” added Karen.

That’s especially important in a year like this one, where even the act of granting these wishes has become a challenge as a result of the pandemic.

“We’re still granting wishes — we’re granting a lot of wishes this year, actually — but travel wishes are suspended right now until we feel it’s safe for our Wish families to travel,” said Stallings. “So that’s triggered some of the families to rethink their wish right now and focus on something closer to home.

“Even then, we don’t get to have that in-person connection we’d like to have with a wish. Sometimes we just drop boxes off on the porch like ninjas and wave from the street. We don’t get to celebrate every wish.”

But even though the pandemic has changed how the organization operates, the impact is as strong as ever.

“What that wish does is give kids a chance to just step outside of that cycle of medical visits and treatments and procedures,” said Stallings. “It gives them something to dream about, think about, and get excited about. It really just gives them a chance to be a kid again.”

The Legaults are already looking forward to next year, when they plan to expand their sunflower field up to 10 acres and the season up to 24 days with staggered planting times.

“We’re definitely going to work with Make-A-Wish next year,” said Karen. “This is step one in what will hopefully be a long-term relationship with them.”

For Tony, this new partnership is a win-win.

“The bookings are helping our farm so we can help people who need it,” he said.

Stallings agrees.

“In a year like this one, the big monetary gifts are fewer and farther between but it shows that, with some effort and some creativity and some heart, people who care can make just as big of an impact,” she said.

“It’s a matter of a bunch of people coming together to make big things happen.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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