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“Over the top” fundraiser for Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary has raised close to $50,000

Only 15 years old Cailan Laine Punnewaert has travelled close to 1,000 kilometres throughout Muskoka raising money for Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

“We thought that we should do something over the top to draw attention,” Punnewaert says. 

She was first introduced to the sanctuary when she volunteered with them when she was 11 or 12. That included going door-to-door in her neighbourhood and asking for donations. However, Punnewaert quickly realized that while people were gracious with their donations, they likely weren’t taking the time to learn about the sanctuary and what it is they do. 

That’s when Debbie thought up the idea to paddle. “I knew this is something that would draw in attention,” Cailan says. 

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Cailan, Debbie, and their Shih Tzu Tinkerbell started their first journey in Aug. 2020 and have continued with their treks every year since.

Now 15, Cailan has set a fundraising goal of $100,000 before she goes to University. So far, around $48,000 has been raised between her three years of paddling and previous fundraising initiatives. 

“I was drawn to Aspen Valley because wildlife is such a big part of our future,” Punnewaert says. 

The most recent paddle saw Cailan and Debbie spend eight days on the water travelling close to 400 kilometres. “We’re going into some areas where you can only see by doing what we do and think seeing untouched land and wildlife without human interference is what it’s all about,” Debbie says. “It’s a reminder to us about what we’re protecting.”

Cailan adds that seeing areas almost completely untouched by humans is incredible. “We get to go into an area where the turtles are absolutely huge and look to be 150 years old,” she boasts. “It’s just incredible to see what could happen if they’re untouched by humans.”

“When we paddle 14 hours, we don’t really focus on paddling,” Debbie says. “We talk, we sing, we’re just constantly enjoying each other and keeping our minds off of what we’re doing.”

“You can ask anyone on the lakes or the rivers if they’ve heard a weird stretching noise because that was probably us,” Cailan adds.

“I never feel more connected to her as a human being as when we’re out in the middle of nowhere with no interference,” Debbie says. 

She continues by saying that she’s always encouraged Cailan to make a difference. “We’ve really encouraged her to keep thinking she can change the world,” Debbie says. “I’m proud of her for hanging onto that belief that she can make a difference.”

This past paddle was “bittersweet” for Debbie because she says she realized that it won’t be long before her daughter leaves home to go to University. The plan, according to Cailan, is to go to school somewhere in Ontario – hopefully, Guelph University – and study earth sciences. She says staying in the province will allow her to continue fundraising for Aspen Valley. 

“I want to make the world a better place,” she says.

“Next year we’re hoping to make this more of a community paddle,” Debbie says.

“We’re hoping to do a short paddle, then lunch and some games, then a paddle back,” Cailan adds, but says plans haven’t been finalized yet. 

A website has been set up to allow anyone to donate to Cailan’s fundraiser for Aspen Valley. 

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