National Volunteer Week 2024: Women’s College Hospital’s Historic Fundraisers  

Story by: Heather Gardiner

Shortly after Women’s College Hospital (WCH) moved into a residential house at 125 Rusholme Road in 1915, its staff were met with a wonderful surprise. A small group of dedicated women pledged their tireless support to ensure that the small women’s hospital would succeed. These women were WCH’s first volunteers. 

Initially, the group supported the hospital through service. They sewed bed sheets, knitted baby clothes, baked bread, canned fruits and vegetables, and made jam. However, they soon realized that the small hospital was in desperate need of new medical equipment, hospital furniture, and supplies. The early volunteers decided to further support the hospital through fundraising.   

In September 1917, they announced that their first big fundraising project was to raise money to furnish the hospital’s new 3-storey wing. One of the most effective ways for the early volunteers to raise money and bring attention to the hospital’s cause was through the organization of fundraising social events such as teas, dances, bridge games, and garden parties on the front lawn of the hospital.  

The success of these early fundraising efforts is documented in the hospital’s annual reports. Records in the WCH Archives show that beginning in 1920, the volunteers started making regular donations of much-needed equipment to the hospital such as fracture beds, anesthetic equipment, electric washing machines, heaters, labour beds, and the furnishings and equipment for entire wards and departments including the delivery rooms and operating rooms. A variety of ordinary household items found throughout the hospital, such as light fixtures, rugs, chairs, and drapes were also paid for by the volunteers. In 1940, the volunteers even sprang into action and quickly purchased WCH’s first incubator when a baby girl was born at the hospital weighing a mere 2 pounds 11 ½ ounces.  

Volunteers donate delivery room equipment, 1940s

Over the decades, the volunteers’ fundraising events became more and more elaborate. The small social gatherings soon evolved into dances, musicals, theatre nights, and concerts. These events were covered by local media and were often featured in the society pages of Toronto newspapers. 

In 1934, the volunteers established their signature fundraising event – January Nite.  

January Nite, 1960

On the last Saturday of every January, an annual fundraising gala for WCH was held in the ballrooms of the Royal York Hotel. Ladies wore their most elegant ball gowns and men dressed in tuxedos and formal suits. This event featured dancing, bridge, and musical entertainment. For almost 40 years, each annual January Nite raised thousands of dollars for the hospital. The event helped WCH to purchase modern equipment for its x-ray department, laboratories, and blood bank. 

As Mrs. Archibald Huestis, president of the WCH board (1932-1946), would explain:   

“Women ought to be proud of this hospital. This hospital was inspired by women, staffed by women, and built on the faith of women…its equipment is second to none anywhere. And much of this modern equipment was secured through what we might call the frivolities of women, our little parties, and pastimes. Every time we have a party we purchase some piece of medical equipment.”  

Over the decades, the activities of the volunteers at WCH have changed and evolved. The volunteers slowly moved away from organizing large-scale social events to other fundraising projects such as a gift shop, book sales, and craft and bake sales in the lobby of the old hospital building. Today, the volunteers continue to support WCH through service and raising money to support the hospital and its activities. Most recently, the Association of Volunteers helped the hospital to purchase new mammography equipment.

The history of volunteerism at WCH is one of dedication and passion. It is important to recognize that before the rise of professional fundraisers that now dominate the charitable sector, it was women’s groups, like our volunteers, who were the first to tirelessly support our hospital and improve the quality of women’s healthcare in Toronto.

Association of Volunteers, 2022

This National Volunteer Week we celebrate all the volunteers who make a positive difference at WCH! Thank you!