Toronto—August 20, 2019 will forever be a banner day for Kelly Whetter, founder of Gabe’s Red Balloon Foundation. It was on that day that she was able to shake the hand of Mr. Lewis, the first-ever recipient of the Gabriel Nikov Memorial Award, and present the young man with the $1,500.00 scholarship bearing the name of her son, shot and killed in a random act of violence in April 2016.
Emotions ran high as Ms. Whetter and Mr. Lewis took the stage; many in the crowd beamed but some wiped away tears, the admixture of feelings befitting the good-from-bad Whetter created when she opted to help vulnerable youth in the aftermath of her only child’s needless death.
The scholarship presentation was the highlight of the second annual summer music festival in Bickford Park, but there were good vibes and good tunes aplenty throughout the day. Turnout was healthy—friends old and new—and even some four-legged pals—gathered to soak up the sun and honour Gabe.
Emceed by Nate Oberst, the festival was kicked off musically by Danielle Hebscher, who played a set of soaringly lovely original tunes. Next up was vocalist Salvatori, accompanied by Peter and Alex, who capped off a toe-tapping reggae fusion set with the vivid and all-too-apropros “Too Young for a Funeral“. After that came the scholarship presentation and then remarks by Chris Glover, NDP MPP for Spadina-Fort York. The Lookout Service dialled the energy way up with a roaring set of hard-driving rock and headliner Frankie Foo and the Yoyo Smugglers got the crowd moving with a slate of feel-good ska numbers.
Throwing something a little different into the mix, comedy duo Zach Mealia and Chris Casselman gave the crowd something to laugh about with the thrust-and-parry of their quick-witted improv; on their heels, musicians Mohsin Zaman and Danny Drums offered up a goosebump-inducing collaboration of haunting vocals and visceral percussion. Then it was Evelyn Fox, co-founder with Kelly Whetter of Communities for Zero Violence and mother of Kiesingar Gunn, another young man lost senselessly to homicide, with heartfelt and trenchant remarks on the gun violence that plagues Toronto. To end the event musically, Lisa Johnston of Coldwater Roots performed her original song “Show Me a Sign”, written for and about Gabriel in the days following his death. Always deeply moving, the song was made even more resonant by the fact that this year, Kelly Whetter took the stage to perform with Lisa. Finally, after releasing two red balloons during the song’s final stanzas, Kelly was joined onstage by emcee Nate Oberst for closing remarks and thank-yous.
Like last year, 2019’s festival was an enormous success—and upping the wonderful quotient was the awarding of the first scholarship. This annual event will be held again in 2020, on the third Sunday of August; all are invited to turn out for an afternoon sure to bring on smiles. As well, the second annual indoor concert will be held in April 2020 at the Bloor Bar Cafe. Watch this space for more info.
As always, the festival was made possible by the generosity of the many friends and acquaintances who took time out of their busy lives to honour Gabe and to raise awareness about gun violence. Event organizers offer their deepest thanks to them as well as to all who donated services or money. Over $1,250.00 was raised, 100% of which will go towards the scholarship fund to benefit vulnerable youth who opt out of guns and violence and into education.