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M&M Meats Shops' Discovery Leads To $23-million For Crohn's and Colitis Foundation

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When M&M Meat Shops co-founder Mac Voisin decided that his frozen foods business would start donating to a little-known cause in 1989 -- less than a decade after he started M&M Meats with Mark Nowak -- he made what he calls "the big discovery." He found that Canada had the highest incidence per capita of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in the world.

"At that time, there were about 150,000 sufferers and [Canadians] raised next to nothing for research. So we said, 'Well, why don't they raise any money for research?' And [scientists] said, 'Well, no one will admit they have the disease.' So, if you don't admit you have the disease, there's no awareness. If there's no awareness, there will never be any money for research," Voisin tells Samaritanmag.

This "big discovery" led Voisin to start building awareness and raising funds for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada (CCFC). In 1989, M&M Meats hosted a charity BBQ day at around 50 of their Ontario locations. Volunteers grilled and handed out hot dogs and hamburgers in exchange for a small donation, and raised close to $50,000. That donation total doubled the next year.

Twenty-three years later, more than 450 M&M Meat Shops across Canada still barbeque to fund CCFC research that goes to finding a cure for IBD. M&M Meats has raised almost $23 million for the CCFC. This year's Charity BBQ Day will be held on Saturday, May 12, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at all M&M Meat Shops.

"[This year,] our goal is $1.5 million," Voisin says. "The minimum donation is three bucks. You get a burger or hot dog, a bag of chips and a drink. And we put every penny to the cause. We don't take anything off."

IBD is a group of disorders that cause inflammation and sores in the small and large intestines. The most common types of IBD are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. In 2008, an estimated 250,000 Canadians had been diagnosed, according to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation. Canada still has one of the most prevalent rates of the disease in the world.

The bulk of donations go toward medical research at the CCFC. "When we started this in 1989, there were about 12 researchers [at the Foundation]. Now there's about 110 researchers," Voisin says. "They're doing all aspects of research to try to find the cause and the cure. The biggest area of success in the last number of years has been in drug therapy so that people with the disease can live a normal life."

Voisin says that many of the current donations are going to a research project called GEM (Genetics, Environmental, Microbial) that the CCFC launched in 2008. The GEM Project currently has 2,500 test subjects enrolled, all of whom are between six and 35 years of age and are either siblings or children of people with Crohn's disease. The project aims to find the source of the disease that leads to its development in family members.

"[The CCFC has] gone to all of these people with the disease, and they study these people plus all of their offspring," Voisin says. "Then they test all of the people that don't have it and they try to follow through with these people so that if they get the disease, [the researchers] can see instantly what happened, what changes took place in the intestine to trigger it.

"By the time people are diagnosed with [IBD], so much time has passed that everything has changed metabolically in the body. The composition of the intestines is totally changed. They want to know what happens to help these people. What's the trigger point?"

If one parent has IBD, there is a 10 to 15 per cent chance that their offspring will inherit the disease, according to the CCFC. If both parents have it, their children have more than a one in three chance of developing a form of IBD, the foundation says.

Beyond the Charity BBQ Day, M&M Meats supports the CCFC year-round, Voisin says. The frozen foods retailer hosts two golf tournament fundraisers, one in Kitchener and one in Calgary, during the summer. The 455 locations also have coin boxes at the register, and M&M Meats donates every cent toward IBD research.

Furthermore, Voisin says that he will match donations of up to $100,000 at the CCFC All That Glitters Gala at Toronto's Allstream Centre May 8. He credits his parents' spirit of social responsibility as a big influence on his philanthropy.

"My parents were always big supporters of charity and always encouraged us to give back to the community. It was just part of the fabric. When we got into the business, [Mark and I] wanted to give back and help out the community and have some fun doing it. It's fun giving back."

Voisin has also devoted time to other charitable efforts in his hometown of Kitchener, Ont., such as the local food bank, an addiction treatment centre for youth and the St. Mary's General Hospital Foundation. The CCFC also asked Voisin to be the foundation's honourary chairperson in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, a position that he accepted.

"We've been very proud to be a part of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation and to see we're making a difference and that we're inexpendable," Voisin says. "We talk to these researchers and see how much progress is being made. It gives us a great feeling of satisfaction."

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Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.