On a warm, breezy Thursday at the Bill Reid Millennium Amphitheatre in Surrey, B.C., a small army of volunteers is hard at work.
Tables and chairs are meticulously placed, giant banners are hung and the bar is starting to come together. A small mountain of beverages grows as case upon case is hand-bombed onto the main stage.
The seventh annual Gone Country music festival is taking shape, and on Saturday, this mostly empty field will be transformed into a full-throttle, sold-out, country music barn burner featuring headliners Aaron Pritchett and George Canyon.
Gone Country is sure to be a boot-stompin, hootin’ and hollerin’ good time. But the event’s mission is unique. Gone Country is firstly, and most importantly, a grassroots cancer charity fundraiser. All proceeds go toward fighting cancer and supporting those who live with it. Over its lifespan, organizers say the event has raised more than $2.2m for cancer charities.
And at the helm of the organized chaos are Chris and Jamie Ruscheinski. In the midst of the action, they’re answering relentless phone calls and being peppered with volunteer questions. They’re delegating with speed and precision.
Jamie and Chris are twin brothers, Fraser Valley realtors and in this setting, they’re two of the most prolific grassroots cancer charity fundraisers around. They’ve been at it for 20 years.
Jamie says they’re getting close to the $3 million mark over that time span. With the funds the twins have raised to date, they’ve helped renovate the Easter Seals House in Vancouver, established a music therapy room at Abbotsford Canucks Place Children’s Hospice and purchased equipment for the B.C. Cancer Agency.
The Ruscheinskis’ passion for cancer fundraising comes from a deeply personal place. They lost their mother and one of their best friends to the disease.
“When our mom was sick, her rent was $650 a month and her disability check with $675 a month. She had a long fight with breast cancer for about three and a half years … and she wasn’t able to work,” Jamie said.
“And so we started doing a couple of cancer fundraisers and … when she passed away we just kept doing it and wanted to help some people that were going through the same stuff. Now it’s turned into this huge outdoor event with 6,000 people. It’s crazy.”
With this year’s Gone Country event being sold out for more than a month now, including the $1,200 per table VIP section, the Ruscheinski twins say they’re on track for their goal of raising $750,000 at this year’s event alone.
And despite their own considerable efforts, they’re quick to credit their volunteers for the fundraising success. If Gone Country is a fundraising freight train, the volunteers are the fuel that moves it.
“Some people have a soccer team or some sort of sports team that they play with. We are just one giant fundraising team now. There’s about 30 of us and everybody has a specific job,” Jamie said.
“There’s one person in charge of ice for the event. You don’t think about keeping drinks cold for six thousand people, but you need one person in charge of that entirely. Everybody has their duties and we rely on all of them and it’s year seven now so they’re all really good at it which is fantastic.”
Ron Bate is a long-time friend of the Ruscheinskis and a volunteer with Gone Country. He says it’s the twins’ demeanour and focus that attracts people to volunteer their time.
It’s a real grassroots organization that comes from the heart. It comes from a real place,” Bate said.
“They are so casual and welcoming. The way that they conduct themselves personally is the way that they conduct themselves professionally and that’s why it’s become such a success.They’re the type of people that people are drawn to, and they want to help.”
But even with that big volunteer push, the Ruscheinski’s remain the events’ lifeblood. To put the 12-months-every-year level of commitment into perspective, two months ago, Chris started booking artists for next year’s event.
The sold out Gone Country music festival runs Saturday, July 20, at 2 p.m. at the Bill Reid Millennium Amphitheatre in Surrey.
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With files from The Early Edition.