“I’ve never had to struggle in my life, so I’d like to help those who have struggles and are trying to better themselves.”
Gavin Thompson stands out from the flock.
There’s his shaved head, handlebar moustache, trademark grin (the infectious kind that spreads easily to everyone around him), and peerless style and flair. But it’s more than that. He carries an energy that attracts others to him, bringing out their best qualities and emboldening them to take on new challenges.
I’ve known Gavin for about 20 years, since I started playing on his co-ed ultimate team, the Fabulous Flying Flamingoes. He has been one of the most important people in my life—someone who brought about pivotal change for me and had a powerful, lasting influence. But I’m not even sure he’s aware of his impact. His exuberance, positivity and generosity extend to so many people; I don’t know how he could ever fully appreciate how many lives he has improved, how many hearts he’s touched.
In the past few months, Gavin’s capacity to help others has grown considerably. His penchant for finding great deals (he’s been called an “extreme bargain hunter”) led to Boom! Savings! Charity Shopping Club, which was launched in early 2016 to formalize Gavin’s efforts to capitalize on clearance sales and corporate points systems to buy goods for various local charities.
The club has gotten a fair amount of press this year, including from CBC’s Ottawa Morning and Our Ottawa. It’s wonderful to see his charity work receive such great attention. But here’s the thing: As amazing as Boom! Savings! is, there’s so much more to Gavin’s story, so many more tales of generosity and ingenuity.
“Gavin is always looking to challenge himself: ‘Can I be great at ultimate? Can I be good at poker? What about Scrabble? Photography?’ It was only a matter of time before his deep dives into new challenges crossed paths with his hankering for lending people a hand. Gavin’s knack for finding out how things REALLY work has helped him provide a way for many of his friends (and there are many) to help those in need, in a way they couldn’t on their own.” —John Stardom, 2013 Canadian National Scrabble Championship semifinalist (and Gavin’s Statistics Canada colleague & Scrabble sensei)
Despite his larger-than-life personality, Gavin wasn’t always so easy to pinpoint. Throughout his youth in Ottawa, Ontario, where he’s lived almost all his life (except for the first six weeks; he was born in Scotland, where his father attended university), Gavin “wanted absolutely nothing to stick out” about him. From his plain haircut to the “unflashy” position he played in football (offensive lineman), everything he did “was to try to fit in.”
That began to change when he and his Glebe Collegiate Institute classmates formed the Fabulous Flying Flamingoes (FFF), a recreational ultimate team. They launched FFF in 1990, and Gavin has played with them every year since. Under his leadership, it evolved into a co-ed touring team for several years, earning a spot at the 2002 World Ultimate Club Championships in Hawaii before returning to its grassroots on the Ottawa Carleton Ultimate Association’s league fields.
Making the leap from recreational team to competitive touring team helped prove to him the merits of pivoting outside his comfort zone, a skill he has since mastered. (Fitting for the man after whom the offensive play “zone buster” was named.)
“I’m quite risk averse,” he says. “But one of the things I’ve noticed is that if you push your boundaries a little bit, you’re normally not introducing great risk. The next step isn’t usually off a cliff; it’s usually just a little bit more outside of your comfort zone. I found that in pushing myself out of my comfort zone, it really expanded the number of opportunities I got to experience and the number of people I got to meet.”
As his doubts subsided, Gavin went from being “a typical student who lived in a small bubble” to someone with a burgeoning sense of self who wanted to learn more about who he was, and wasn’t afraid to let others in on the secret. “Once I developed self-confidence, it allowed me to become more expressive as a person,” he says.
Among the facets he began exploring further was his desire to give back to the community. He’d always had a yearning to help others, but “hadn’t really found the right avenue for it,” he says. So he started looking into how he could make a difference in a way that felt right.
One of his initiatives came through FFF, when he introduced Sharing Through Scoring in the early 2000s. “At every league game, my team would pledge to donate a dollar per point scored, and we’d ask our opponents to do the same,” he says. With the money raised, FFF made donations to the Wild Bird Care Centre, Make-A-Wish Foundation and Ottawa Food Bank.
Sharing Through Scoring was a great program in and of itself. It also allowed the Flamingo to wade in and gobble up a taste of what was to come.
“Gavin and I grew up in the same neighbourhood in Old Ottawa South, going back about 40 years, but our friendship really took off in early high school, when we became co-captains of our ultimate team, the Fabulous Flying Flamingoes. It was clear to me, even in those awkward teenage years, that Gavin had a way with people, wanting to support, develop and guide his teammates and friends… Gavin has spent just about all of his teenage and adult life playing ultimate, and I’ve had the distinct pleasure of playing with him and against him, and generally enjoying the company of this remarkably generous, socially-committed, thoughtful and considerate individual—someone I’m happy and honoured to call my friend.” —Karlis Bouse, Fabulous Flying Flamingo emeritus
A spirited gamesman
Ultimate has been Gavin’s true sports love from the first point of his first league game, nearly 30 years ago. “I instantly fell in love with it because of the camaraderie, the fact that you have to rely on your opponents to play the game,” he says. “Since there are no referees, you have to come to an understanding with your opponents, and in doing so, you get to know them.”
But that doesn’t mean Gavin hasn’t had other sporting relationships.
While studying math and computer science at the University of Ottawa, he started helping out with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Terry Plumb’s hockey team, and stayed involved with the sport for about 15 years. (He currently volunteers with the hockey team that his and Terry’s eight-year-old daughter, Madeline, plays on; they also have a nearly-five-year-old daughter, Samantha.)
In addition to being a hockey mentor during university, he began working as a statistician for the Gee-Gees men’s and women’s basketball teams, something he still does today.
After completing his undergraduate degree in 1997, Gavin stayed at uOttawa to pursue a Masters in Biostatistics, which he finished in 2000. He’s been working as a methodologist at Statistics Canada ever since.
Through his intense involvement in athletics, he has repeatedly proven that having a logical, math-oriented mind helps in (and on) more fields than just math. He seems to have an innate gift for spotting patterns. I’ve seen him take mental snapshots of a game in progress and instantly be able to identify the plays.
That ability has benefited many ultimate players across Canada (although it may have irked some of his opponents). In 2004, Gavin left Ottawa’s top co-ed team (Silver, a merger between FFF and their former rivals) and began playing with only B teams so he could help nurture new talent. He founded and coached Ottawa’s developmental co-ed team, Bigfish, and later began coaching the women’s team Stella B.
In 2008, responding to a request for coaching and mentorship, he took up with Newfoundland and Labrador’s co-ed team, Wreckhouse. “The match was perfect,” he says. “I gave them the guidance and leadership they wanted as far as how to run a team, and they offered me the opportunity to continue playing with a bunch of wonderful people.”
He stayed with Wreckhouse until 2011, when they’d developed the skills and knowledge necessary to lead the team on their own. In those three years, he travelled to every Wreckhouse tournament, and frequently brought his family—Terry, whom he married in 2007, and Maddie—to Newfoundland to help mentor and run clinics for local players.
Since leaving Wreckhouse to their own devices, his passion for ultimate hasn’t waned a bit. He played with the Ottawa masters team Iron Crow for the past two seasons, and will continue to coach Stella B in summer 2016. He’s also still a keen league player; this year marks his 27th consecutive season playing with FFF.
“I have met quite a few personalities in sport, but there is only one Gavin Thompson. He exemplifies spirit of the game, a concept unique to the sport of ultimate and what makes it stand apart from other sports. He demonstrates it on the field and off, acknowledging great plays made by his own team and his competitors and taking the time to interact and get to know players. Gavin played a very large role in the development of ultimate in Newfoundland and Labrador… I attribute much of my ultimate success to his time and patience with me and my fellow teammates, not just during the early years but also through the ongoing guidance and interactions with him, which I hope will continue for years to come.” —Suzy Steever, Vice-President, Ultimate Newfoundland and Labrador
“Gavin is the type of person you’ll rarely get to meet in life; once they enter your world, they’re there for good. His giving nature and outgoing personality make him easy to like. Even as an ultimate coach, he’s taught me life lessons that have stuck with me to this day—like, ‘It’s always the receiver’s fault.’ His impact on the development of co-ed players has reached many across the country, and he continues to shape the next generation of competitive ultimate players.” —Christopher Castonguay, Executive Director, Ottawa Carleton Ultimate Association
No question of priorities
After two decades of knowing Gavin, one thing I’ve learned is that he really is up for anything. Check out the Kickass Continuum entry on him and you’ll read about his zest for donning costumes at tournament parties. He eagerly helped out on my short films, auditioning actors for Sight Lines in 2002 and volunteering as a production assistant for Bliss in 2012. And he starred in the 2009 holiday classic The Grim Dater. (To this day, he still sends me messages saying, “Let’s make another a movie!”)
Gavin has so many passions and pastimes, from Scrabble to poker to photography, and he tackles them all with incredible enthusiasm. He only got serious about photography a few years ago, but he’s already racked up some impressive credits. He shot the 2013 Under-23 Ultimate Championships in Toronto, Ontario and is applying to be an official photographer at the World Ultimate and Guts Championships in London, England this summer.
The reasons behind his new pursuits are often—in fact, usually—selfless. “My entire raison d’etre, when it comes to ultimate photography, is getting pictures to the people I’ve taken them of so they can enjoy them,” he says.
In the words of his younger sister, Julie Thompson, “He’ll do anything for anyone; all they have to do is ask.”
As long as I’ve known Gavin, he’s had his priorities firmly in place. While I played ultimate with FFF, he worked four days at week at Statistics Canada, instead of five. His rationale was that if he worked full-time, he just ended up buying more stuff, so he’d rather make a bit less and have the extra day for ultimate, friends and family.
Not long before becoming a father, he returned to working full-time in 2007. But he still makes time for what matters most to him. Which makes me wonder how he’s able to fit in everything that he does.
“I don’t watch TV and I don’t watch movies and I don’t read fiction,” he says. As he sees it, nearly all of it is about selling products and attracting the most viewers or readers. “It’s not about telling the story they want to tell; it’s about telling the story that generates the most revenue.” And he doesn’t want to feed that system.
“I think there’s a lot of evil in capitalism,” he says. “I think its purpose is to try to convince people that they need things that they don’t, and to feel bad if they don’t have it. And it’s for the profit of very, very wealthy people. I don’t enjoy the fact that that exists.”
Given his strong stance against the machine, it’s no surprise that Gavin is more than the willing to forfeit the 10 to 15 hours he says most North American adults spending watching TV each week, and spend it instead doing something much more valuable. Even if does involve putting more money in corporate pockets.
“Gavin was a great coach for me. He gave me invaluable advice on how to outrun my male opponents, which I actually turned into a practical way of dealing with people in my life. He helped strengthen my self-confidence during a time when I had little. I cherish every moment we shared playing on FFF: the countless practises, the pep talks and especially the laughs—oh, the many laughs. I will forever be grateful to Gavin for giving me the opportunity to shine when I thought my light was burnt out.” —Kickass Canadian Lorraine Elizabeth Campbell, When We Play founder, Fabulous Flying Flamingoes alumna
Boom! Savings! Charity Shopping Club
“The reason I started looking for great deals was because I wanted to defeat big business,” says Gavin. “It just so happens that the amount of need I have for things is very small, whereas the amount of need charities have is very big. So (my shopping) became a perfect marriage between places that need things and someone who find things at great discounts.”
Gavin has always loved seeking out good deals. But it wasn’t until last year that he ratcheted things up to a new level. In January 2015, he created the blog frugalitiness: The art of being frugal, deepening his quest to make ever-more impressive savings. His friends took note, and by the end of the year, he was issued a challenge: Accept $150 and see how far he could make it go for charity.
Turns out, he can huck it pretty far. He used that $150 to purchase—and donate—$1535.49 of goods (a return of 10.24 times the investment, he’s happy to point out).
Since then, Gavin has resoundingly shattered expectations. Officially dubbed Boom! Savings! Charity Shopping Club in January 2016, his initiative has contributed goods to a large and growing list of Ottawa-area charities, including: Britannia Woods Food Pantry, Capital Welcomes, Daisy’s Drop In, Gloucester Emergency Food Cupboard, Harmony House, Norman Johnston Food Cupboard, Operation Come Home, Parkdale Food Centre, The Snowsuit Fund, St. Joe’s Women’s Centre, The Tampon Project, Tampon Tuesday and Youville Centre.
Here’s how it works: Gavin monitors stores loyalty programs to make use of the points system. He also gets down on the ground level, regularly marching through stores to look for clearance sales that aren’t advertised online or in flyers. By combining those two methods, he’s able to get astounding deals; he once saved more than $2,300 on a purchase of $201.79, and paid $1.80 for more than $90 worth of baby food.
Some of the charities he donates to focus on supporting young mothers and women. His work with those organizations, among other things, has him further exploring the idea of what it means to be a feminist.
“I’ve always seen women as equal to men,” he says. “I believe that’s what feminism is about—strictly just equality. But I’m a straight, white male; I don’t think I’ve ever experienced inequality. So am I allowed to say I’m a feminist when I don’t truly understand the suffering or the injustice or the inequality? It’s an interesting exploration of self, to not be part of a group but to want to help champion the cause.”
“At Youville Centre, we call special donors and supporters our ‘Youville Angels,’ and Gavin is certainly one of them. In less than a year, Gavin has taken the time and energy to donate thousands of dollars’ worth of much-needed items for Youville Centre’s young mothers and their children. He has taken the time to get to know our clients’ needs, and answered the call through his shopping trips, whether it be with diapers, baby food, wipes, clothing, toys, hygiene products and much more! Gavin’s charitable spirit and sincere generosity knows no bounds, and he is now also giving to many other local charities. With his unique talent for finding the best deals and meeting the specific needs of each charity, Gavin is truly making an immeasurable difference in the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens here in Ottawa.” —Heather Heagney, Communications & Community Development Officer, Youville Centre
“Gavin has taken his passion for bargain hunting and turned it into a way to help out charities that provide a service to people in our local community who are in need. He thinks outside the box, and instead of taking ‘No’ for an answer, finds a way to get the best deal using a different approach. By sharing his passion with others so that, he has grown his initiative into something even bigger, being able to use pooled resources to even more advantage to help other agencies in our city! He is an example of how creativity, passion and energy applied in the right direction can make a difference.” —Gwen Bouchard, Executive Coordinator, Gloucester Emergency Food Cupboard
Giving by the numbers
A gifted statistician, Gavin is excited by the numbers game of discount charity shopping. For him, much of the drive to give back comes from economies of scale.
“If I spend a dollar on myself, how much does that increase my happiness?” he asks. “Not a whole hell of a lot. If I buy someone who has nothing something that’s worth a dollar, collectively, our happiness goes up a lot further… Me putting another bottle of shampoo in my house doesn’t do very much. Me putting a bottle of shampoo into someone’s house that has no shampoo is much more important.”
Math is a huge part of his equation. But the real engine behind his metrics isn’t a calculator, it’s a compass: Gavin’s huge, powerful heart. It’s one that continues to expand exponentially. “The more I work with charities, the more I see the human element,” he says.
One of many lessons he has learned from Boom! Savings! is the importance of comfort and dignity. “When I first started buying for charity, I really stuck with the staples: baby formula, shampoo, toothpaste,” he says. “The problem is that everyone thinks of the same thing. Everyone was donating baby formula. There’s always a need for baby formula, but people who rely on charity also want everything else in the store that everyone wants.”
Here’s how he sees it: If someone with money is willing to spend money on something, there exists a person without money who would like to have it, too.
This February, he bought hair dye on sale and donated it to Daisy’s Drop-In, Harmony House, St. Joe’s Women’s Centre and Youville Centre.
He was enlightened by the positive response.
“People who struggle to put food on the table will always make eating the priority, but they’d also like to have something that makes them feel a little bit better about themselves,” he says. “Because of the volume that Boom! Savings! buys at right now, we can look past the staples and start to look at things that allow the recipients to pamper themselves everyone once in awhile. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to give them that.”
Gavin is very proud of his family’s support of his charity work. Terry, a teacher at Hawthorne Public School, has long been spending her own money to provide supplies for students in need. So she’s well aware of the importance of giving to others. And she easily recognizes how important Boom! Savings! has become.
“One of the things I appreciate most about all the work Gavin is doing for charity is that it is spreading awareness of the social issues around the need for charities,” says Terry. “Our daughters are certainly more aware, but it is also encouraging other people to get more involved.”
This winter, Maddie and Sammie spent three hours matching shoes when Gavin donated them to Capital Welcomes for the hundreds of Syrian refugees arriving in Ottawa. “The kids understand that there are people out there who have a lot less than we have and that they need help,” he says.
Most of his charity shopping funds come from donations. But he often chips in his own money when he sees a deal that might not intrigue donors, but that he feels is worthwhile. “If people give me $20, I want to turn that into a $200 donation,” he says. “So I’ll use their money for the really good deals, and use mine as a side pot for the deals that aren’t as exciting but might be just as necessary for people—like baby formula at 10% off.”
Gavin takes each product donation to heart. He’s seen firsthand that every time someone picks up an item from one of the charities, there’s a story behind it. “It’s the stories of abuse, it’s the stories of addiction, it’s the stories of ending up in a situation that any one of us could have ended up in,” he says. “I think all of us are one mistake away from ending up in a really dire place. You look at people who have addiction issues—some went to one party and they tried the wrong drug once, and that was it; it was over.
“Every one of us could be in that situation. I’m in a situation where I’ve never had to struggle in my life, so I’d like to help those who have struggles and are trying to better themselves.”
“With (my dad) helping my hockey team, we can do lots of stuff—we raise money, we have more fun and we go to tournaments. When we’re sad, he cheers us up and gives us the confidence to do something about it. I like having him around because if we lose, he always tells us we can win the next time. He gives us good creative ideas. Our team’s goalie likes peanut butter, so he says to reach high for the peanut butter (when she’s trying to block the puck). And it worked. I’m pretty lucky to have him.” —Madeline (Maddie) Thompson, Gavin’s eldest daughter
“I have the best daddy in the world because he takes me to sports and he comes to my school to help with science, and he’s funny.” —Samantha (Sammie) Thompson, Gavin’s youngest daughter
Gavin says it’s easy to shop for discounts in support of charities, and he encourages everyone to start doing it. “Once you figure out that companies don’t actually want to waste things, that they’d rather sell it, you can get a lot of stuff out there really quickly.”
Ultimately, he wants companies to stop generating so much waste and start finding ways of channeling it to people in need.
He recognizes that most businesses won’t make it happen of their own accord. “Their job is to make money, not be charitable,” he says. “So it will take a large social movement, or the government, to either force or incentivize businesses into giving rather than wasting.” But that doesn’t mean we should sit idle.
Until it becomes the norm for companies to cut back on waste, he hopes to see other cities form clubs like Boom! Savings!
“We’re doing quite a good job with it in Ottawa, but if this expanded to other cities, it could do so much more good,” he says. “My life goal is to educate people about how to become better citizens, how to become more caring for other people. I see so much opportunity for people to help, and people just don’t take advantage of it. I used to be the same way; I’d see an incredibly good deal and think, ‘How does this apply to me?’ If I saw a two-for-one sale, I never thought I should buy one at regular price and donate the other one. But that’s the way people should think.”
Wise words from a rare bird.
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For the latest on Gavin, email [email protected] and follow his frugalitiness blog.
To follow his charity shopping adventures, join the Boom! Savings! Facebook group and follow @Savings4Charity on Twitter. To donate to the club, please send e-transfers to [email protected].