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Frank O’Dea, guest speaker

Marsha Cowan, CEO of Jewish Foundation of Manitoba

The head table which was comprised of: (Left to Right) The Foundation’s Past President, Harvey Secter; Michael Werier, JFM Secretary Treasurer; Larry Vickar, JFM Executive Member; Joe Wilder, JFM Vice President; our guest speaker, Frank O'Dea; and Marsha Cowan, JFM CEO

Guests at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba's 36th Annual Luncheon


SEE THE VIDEO: Frank O’Dea Delivers Unforgettable Speech Of His Triumph over Alcoholism/ Panhandling at Jewish Foundation’s Annual Luncheon

By Rhonda Spivak, November 24, 2010

Frank O’Dea, who has become one of Canada’s most successful and celebrated entrepreneurs, establishing numerous businesses, including the Second Cup, delivered an unforgettable, motivational speech at the Jewish Foundation’s 36th Annual Luncheon at the Fairmont hotel on Friday November 19, 2010.

 You can view the video here

Prior to O’ Dea’s speech, Marsha Cowan, the CEO of the Jewish Foundation spoke of  how  the goals that the foundation set for itself  in 2006, “have resulted in great gain,” 

Cowan noted that donation levels have increased and  the Foundation’s assets are once again nearing 70 million dollars. The Foundation is now back on track towards working to its goal of  $100 million dollars. Cowan added  that new gifts this year amounted to $4.1 million dollars. [For more information about the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, go to

She also said that the Foundations “Growing for life” theme represents the continually growing donor gifts under investment, the Foundation’s contribution to the growth and life of culture, education and community and the Foundation’s ability to help enhance, enliven and grow the lives of individuals and families
O’Dea, who was introduced by Jewish Foundation president Ed Shinewald told his exceptional personal story that exemplifies the ability of one individual to succeed against all odds.

The audience listened attentively to O’Dea’s  inspiring “pin-drop” speech as  spoke of how he became addicted to alcohol and his life went off the rails in his early teens.

 “At 13 I discovered alcohol” and “at 18 I  had an alcohol problem,” he said.

O’Dea recalled how his father sat him down and said that his alcohol addiction was ruining his family’s existence, and kicked him out of the house.

“I can remember the conversation,” he said, noting that his father said, “You are destroying the family,” and that his mother was tired of clearing up his debts, and his siblings were afraid of bringing people over to the house. He also had damaged the family car over 17 times.

“Don’t come back until you fixed your problem,” his father told him.

 O’Dea told the audience that “My life was panhandling,” noting that “for 99 cents I could buy wine.” 

Within a few years, O’Dea was living the life of a derelict sleeping in “50-cent a night flop houses” in Toronto’s bowery district, or on park benches “where you tie your shoes to your ankles”. It was a “lonely existence.”

O’Dea struggled holding down jobs that involved things such as “putting paint cans on a shelf” but he wasn’t able to hold down jobs as he started to drink again.  He remembered hearing an advertorial message that said “If you’re having a problem with alcohol, call us we’re in the book.” 

O’Dea’s street life deteriorated. “I got arrested” and “got into fights” in his drunken state.

O’Dea asked, how do you go from “skid row to speaking at this facility to day ?” He continued ‘It seems like an impossible journey.”  A person needs “Hope, Vison, and Action.”

As O’Dea  began to get help for his problem and sober up, he got vision.

Finally he realized, “I couldn’t trade off every value that my parents gave me.”

He decided, in the midst of his panhandling, that if he didn’t change, he would die in the streets by either freezing to death or being beaten to death. I decided to “make a phone call” [to a self-help group for alcoholics] and from that day on he “never had another drink for the  grace of God.” 

He was age 23 at the time, and with the courage to hope for a better life, and the spirit to forge ahead, O’ Dea began the long road back. Fighting the formidable obstacles that hold back the homeless, the impoverished and the destitute, he overcame and rejoined society.

O’ Dea told the story of how he was able to save up for  a $1000 Canada Savings Bond  dollars which he turned into a mail -order coin-sorting business, “ only to find out that “the market for coin sorters was Catholic churches.”

He told a funny story of a company that sold chickens telling  the  pope that it would give the pope a $100 million dollars on the condition that the pope changed the daily prayer so rather than say “give us our daily” bread , it would say “give us our daily chicken.” The pope was interested and thought that the good news was that the church would get $100 million dollars, but the bad news was “that we’d lose the bakery account.” 

Within a few short years of overcoming his alcohol problem, O’ Dea co-founded The Second Cup, which soon became the largest chain of gourmet coffees and teas in Canada. Building on that success, he went on to co-found Proshred Security, a company that pioneered the entire industry of on-site document destruction. This company soon became an international organization with franchised operations in Canada, Europe and the United States.

O’Dea told the story of  the origins of Second Cup, and how he was approached by  Tom Culligan to see if  he wanted to open up a coffee store, in a shopping area they were familiar with.   “Tom said, Frank, let’s go into [the] coffee  business?” The audience laughed heartily when O’dea explained that they did in fact decide to go into the coffee  business   and “It was a disaster but we didn’t know so we opened up more stores.”

When he was offered a seventh store, O’Dea said he went to a  “bank with green signs” and was turned down when he asked for financing. So he went to a bank with different colour signs and they agreed to give him financing.

O’Dea’s inspiring story is retold in his book “When All You Have is Hope.” Although he did not mention this in his talk at the luncheon  O’Dea’s book also deals  with  other watershed events in  his life, including the four times he was he was raped;  by an older woman, then by a policeman, then twice by Roman Catholic priests

After having become a successful businessman, O’Dea, who is the recipient of two university degrees and the Order of Canada,  took steps to give back to the community. He began by serving on the boards of directors of charities and not-for-profit organizations. 

His entrepreneurial desire to innovate and build flourished and in 1985 he co-founded Street Kids International, an organization developed to help homeless children in third world countries, through education and self-reliance programs. 

O’Dea told the audience that at the time he co-founded Street kids International he  learned that 23% of street kids in third world countries were dying of aids and decided to make a film that eventually found its way to Geneva and “targeted 40 million kids,” to help educated them.

His message was that, “You can make a difference” and that we all, just as easily, could have been borne in Sierra Leone [a country in West Africa].” 

A few years after co-founding Street Kids International, O’ Dea became the founding Chair of War Child (Canada), an organization that provides assistance against suffering and abuse of children in war affected countries. In the same year, he co-founded the Canadian Landmine Foundation, an organization that raises funds for the dismantling of minefields around the world. He went on to initiate that organization’s most successful fund raising program, "Night of a Thousand Dinners", with participation of people in 29 countries, raising millions of dollars.

O’Dea ended his powerful message by saying that each of us has a personal mission to fulfill.

“At the end of our lives, you have to look back and say is this place [earth] a little better from me being there,” he said. 

We have to ask ourselves whether we did something that’ is good fro kids.,”

Similarly, we must ask “Did I do something to day that is good for the community?”, and Did I make healthy choices?”

He concluded by saying that it is our task to ensure that we each ‘make a difference.” 

His motto is:

With hope, one has the courage to change the present into a very different future.
With hope, dreams are possible;
With hope one has the persistence to follow the dream and
With hope one can – and will – become much more than you ever dreamed possible.

Larry Vickar, who is on the  executive of the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, thanked O’Dea and the luncheon was adjourned.  You can view the video here.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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