Every day is a good day to say thank you. But National Philanthropy Day was made for it.

United Way of Calgary and Area, its initiatives, and agency partners are incredibly grateful for all our donors and philanthropists. From $1 to $10 million, donations to United Way help Calgarians of all ages through tough times. In the past few years, with the pandemic followed by an affordability crisis, those tough times have unfortunately become all too common, and there is no shortage of areas of need where donors can genuinely make a difference.

For philanthropist Sharon Siebens, who together with her late husband Bill have been generous philanthropists and dedicated supporters of United Way for many years, the reach and impact of the United Way on the community has always been key to their long philanthropy relationship.

“We started to understand where, through a donation, we might make the most impact,” Sharon explains. Now, as she begins her own philanthropic journey, Sharon has chosen United Way’s Planet Youth Calgary initiative as the recipient of United Way’s largest-ever donation: $10 million.

Sharon credits the United Way team’s thorough research of the Icelandic-based initiative and its prevention model—proven to reduce substance use rates among young people by adapting to and recognizing the community’s needs and strengths—and following through by bringing it to Calgary, with influencing her decision.

Knowing that relative to other provinces, Alberta youth have one of the highest rates of first contact with emergency departments for addiction and mental health issues, Sharon says, “We are at a critical stage – if we don’t make some significant changes in the way that we deliver mental health support to our young people, we could lose an entire generation.”

As she contemplates Sharon’s transformational gift to Planet Youth Calgary, United Way of Calgary and Area president and CEO Karen Young says, “A gift of this size isn’t just life-changing for Calgary’s youth,” says Karen. “It will make a generation-shifting impact to fundamentally improve how our community’s young people live, learn, work, and play.”

Calgary is the first city in Western Canada to implement the Planet Youth approach, and the need is great, with visits to Alberta Children’s Hospital for mental health concerns 36 per cent higher in 2021 than 2018, according to Alberta Health Services.

The impact of Sharon’s gift means that Planet Youth Calgary has the potential to not only better the lives of Calgary’s youth, but to shape the future of Calgary and neighbouring areas, says Karen. The initiative will create strong connections between youth and their families, caregivers, peers, schools, and communities, and will provide opportunities for youth activities and recreation in safe spaces.

“Sharon Siebens’ gift is our opportunity to think big. It is a gift to United Way but moreover, it’s a gift to our entire community, now and in the future,” Karen adds.

To Sharon, her selfless acts of philanthropy are simply motivated. Grateful that she has the means to make this type of life-changing donation, Sharon says, “I think my message is to lead by example. I hope that people feel that they have the power to help make our community better for all.”