THUNDER BAY -- Lisa Booker has seen both the beginning and the end of a popular community celebration.
When Booker was a young child her father brought her to the inaugural birthday party for Benny Birch. On Sunday she was able to carry on the family tradition, bringing her son Finley to the venerable mascot’s final bash.
Even though she was too young to remember the initial event, she still has plenty of fond memories from the many subsequent editions she attended with her family.
“We had a lot of fun. There was good food to eat and fun things to do,” she said. “It was a good time to be had for everybody.”
The celebration, which was hosted at Chippewa Park this weekend by the St. Joseph’s Foundation, was the last birthday party for the community icon after 33 years and more than $1 million raised for the organization.
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Children got the opportunity to sing happy birthday to Benny for the final time as well as enjoy birthday cake. Other activities included bouncy castles, Chippewa Park amusement rides, face painting as well as delectable eats.
John Harris, Booker’s father and Finlay’s grandfather, attributed much of the continued appeal behind the event to families being able to pass the event down.
It was special to bring both his daughter and grandson to it for the first time so many years apart, he added.
“It’s a generation thing,” Harris said. “It was nice to bring him for his first time, it’s too bad it’s the last one. We’re sad to see it go.”
There were many other stories like theirs throughout the parkland.
Kevin Muller remembers a much different setting for the party, recalling when it was held on Red River Road with many more amusement rides.
Despite the changes, he still thinks it is a fantastic family activity for him and his six-year-old daughter Alanna.
“She loves it. We’ve been here almost every year since she was little,” Muller said. “It’s going to be very sad, as well as the funding it raised. It’s a shame to see it go.”
St. Joseph’s Foundation executive director Katrina O’Neill said the mascot will be retiring from the birthday celebration beat and instead be repurposed into an environmental symbol.
Attendance has been trending downwards for the event for some time and operating costs have been on the rise.
Weather has played an issue as only once in the past seven years has the event not had to cancel at least one day due to rain. Activities scheduled for Saturday were completely wiped out.
O’Neill said she has heard sadness and disappointment throughout the community but it seems not too many people are surprised.
To fill the void the organization is looking at creating a new event.
“We want it to be as diverse as possible. We have no solid plans as of yet,” she said.
The origins of Benny Birch can be traced back to the St. Joseph’s Care Group operated Bethammi Nursing Home, the symbol of which is a birch tree.
O’Neill said attendance was expected to be around 3,500 people on Sunday.
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