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Independent Spirit Award winner Donna Averill is pictured in Furniture that Feeds, a shop run by the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale.

When Donna Averill first joined the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale Board of Directors in 2008, she began to understand how much more the nonprofit does for the community than provide a food pantry.

Averill, a Kingston resident, also realized, just by looking at the small cash balance from fundraising, very few others around South County – and beyond – understood the Jonnycake Center’s mission to help eliminate hunger.

So Averill began pounding the pavement, knocking on doors and talking with people to sell them on that mission, using talents honed in her 28 years as a sales representative.

In liking a good challenge, Averill also decided the Jonnycake Center should no longer think small when it asked the community for help.

“I felt like the center had smaller events throughout the year that we were kind of used to and I wanted to just break that up,” Averill said. “I said stop thinking that way and let’s think bigger and let’s think different.”

Thanks to Averill, big ideas resulted in previously unimaginable returns for Jonnycake Center.

Averill will be honored for this work with a 2016 Independent Spirit Award, an honor The Independent gives annually to volunteers who give back to their community in special ways. She will be honored at a Sept. 22 banquet along with Diane Amaral of North Kingstown who founded Quilts from the Heart; Michael Millen Sr., a volunteer with Boy Scout Troop 1 Narragansett and a youth sports coach; John Miller of Narragansett, who volunteers with the Narragansett Historical Society; and Michele Vidmar of South Kingstown, who volunteers with Animal Rescue Rhode Island.

Averill said she joined Jonnycake Center’s board because it was a way to get to know the business community near her hometown, which in turn, would help her increase sales for MetLife, where she worked at the time.

“I did a lot more northern sales – Massachusetts, Providence, Warwick,” Averill said. “Even though I live [in Kingston], I didn’t do a lot of sales here. My office was north, so I was more that way or I was in Connecticut. I wasn’t really tapping into southern Rhode Island.”

As she got to know the nonprofit, she learned people knew about the food pantry that helps low-income people make ends meet, but not about the furniture and clothing stores Jonnycake Center runs to fund food purchases.

Things needed to change. Averill decided she could bring that change. Under her leadership in 2014, Jonnycake Center formed an Event Committee to create and implement events to get the word out about the nonprofit’s mission and to spark donations.

“The money I saw come in was quite low and I knew we could do so much better,” Averill said. “I went to so many events before that people would write checks and participate in to help different organizations. I knew there was so much money that could be had.”

Averill’s plan was to get area businesses involved with helping out the Jonnycake Center, including donating big-ticketed items to be auctioned at benefit galas, and using committee members’ strengths into making it possible.

“So we said ‘who’s good at this, or that.’ We put everyone together and said ‘you go knock on doors; you go to Main Street and get businesses involved,’” Averill said. “Maybe you know corporate sponsors and [can] write a letter to them.”

As a result, the 2014 gala at The Coast Guard House in Narragansett raised approximately $12,000, mostly from sales of live and silent auction items.

The event was big, but the committee continued to think bigger. In 2015, Jonnycake Center hosted its Breaking the Waves of Hunger gala, which brought a sold-out crowd of more than 300 to The Dunes Club in Narragansett to mingle and bid on 60 silent auction items and approximately eight to 10 live-auction items. Auctions included a stand-up paddleboard and paddle from Narrow River Kayaks; a brunch for 20 from West Bay Gourmet; a tree with scratch tickets hung from its branches from Carolina Designs; and sparkling wines donated by area liquor stores.

The event raised more than $50,000.

“We packed the house last year,” Averill said. “Steve [Sterling] at The Dunes Club said ‘this house holds 320 people. If you get over 200 guests to attend, that’s a successful event. Anything over that is a fabulous event.’ We sold out last year.”

Jonnycake Center Executive Director Kate Brewster said Averill’s ability to creatively raise money motivates the rest of the staff.

“My feeling is Donna really knew how to take what had been an annual fundraiser to a whole new level by bringing us to a new venue and doing such a fantastic job of soliciting auction items, guests and sponsors that we hadn’t done before,” Brewster said.

“She’s such a caring person,” said Jonnycake Center Development Director Lisa Wright. “She’s touched by the thought she would make a difference in her work and she just really communicates that with how she talks to people. She does a lot tirelessly and never seems to really ask for anything.”

Wright also said the nonprofit, in nominating her for an Independent Spirit Award, wanted to give Averill “a pat on the back” for the work she’s done.

Averill said she isn’t finished. This year’s Breaking the Waves of Hunger gala will be held Sept. 16 from 6-9 p.m. at The Dunes Club and her goal is to raise $100,000, Averill said.

The event, like last year’s, will have an array of items available in silent and live auctions. Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White and her husband, former WJAR-TV investigative reporter Jim Taricani, will be the honorary chairs. The event’s emcee will be WJAR anchor and WPRO-AM radio personality Gene Valicenti.

Tickets cost $100 and the event is expected to sell out, Averill said. For more information, visit jonnycakecenter.org.

The Independent Spirit banquet will be held Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at Laurel Lane Country Club, 309 Laurel Lane, West Kingston. For ticket information, visit independentri.com.

nk@independentri.com

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