The Otto Family: Giving Back and Honouring their Daughter through Maddy’s Gala

Maddy Otto was larger than life at only five years old. She was always in some sort of costume playing superhero games with her sister Hannah, who was two years older.

Dean and Jeanine Otto’s lives changed one summer day in 2007 for their little girl who was always playing a hero.

They were up at their cottage, it was a day like any other, everyone got up, was playing and having fun, and it was time for Maddy to have a rest in the afternoon. When she woke up, she seemed “off”, said dad Dean. Within a few minutes, we realized that she had suffered a seizure.

The family ended up rushing her to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), where they learned the most devastating news, Maddy had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at the stem of her brain and given 48 hours to live. Their outgoing little Maddy was dying, and they couldn’t do anything.

Grief support to carry on and build community

After their daughter’s death, they were welcomed into Roger Neilson House’s grief program which included group sessions. Here, dad Dean and mom Jeanine were given the strength to carry on through their grief and healing process. Their seven-year-old daughter Hannah attended as well, but in the Roger Neilson House siblings’ program.

“That day when we all walked in and were introduced to each other, we all kind of had chips on our shoulders. We were all hurting in the most unimaginable way, but about six weeks later we all became new friends. They are our family now. They are our Roger Neilson House family,” said Jeanine.

“The bereavement counselling and group therapy were instrumental to us surviving the first stages of what we refer to as ‘our new normal’. We had a safe and special place that we could go, and this was vital to our survival.”

Beginning Maddy’s Gala

The Ottos decided they wanted to dedicate a part of their new life to raising awareness and funds for Roger Neilson Children’s Hospice, in Maddy’s honour. Maddy’s Gala was formed within a year of Maddy’s passing.

“We decided as a family that we wanted to give back in some sort of way to Roger Neilson Children’s Hospice as a thank you. No child should die but if they do Roger Neilson Children’s Hospice helps make the journey as comfortable as possible. Our mission was to raise awareness and have as much fun as possible,” said Jeanine.

Maddy’s Gala started as a small event, but around the third year of organizing they started to receive sponsorships from businesses within the Ottawa region. Once more businesses found out about Maddy and the Otto family’s story, the event started to snowball as the local community generously gave back.

“We have been so blessed with an amazing organizing committee, everyone has their specific role and some people have been with us since day one. We usually start planning about six months in advance. Ottawa is a very generous community,” added Jeanine.

Signature fundraising gala in Ottawa

The family completed their 14th year of celebrating Maddy’s Gala in 2023, attracting hundreds of people and surpassing 1 million dollars in funds for Roger Neilson Children’s Hospice over the years, a true accomplishment to keeping Maddy’s spirit alive.

For other families interested in fundraising for Roger Neilson Children’s Hospice, Jeanine recommends that they, “Do what feels right to them and find a theme or an idea that resonates with your family and your child.”

As the Otto family knows well, no fundraiser is too small. As their journey with Maddy’s Gala began with a simple goal to give back, they  are grateful to have reached “Ottawa’s Best Black Tie Event” in 2018.

“There are people that are going to go through the same tragedy as us. They are going to go through what we went through. This is for them, and keeping Maddy’s spirit alive is the icing on the cake for the Ottos.”

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