BEAMSVILLE, Ontario-Eric Gilbert operates a one-location tire dealership in this rural, grape-producing community south of Toronto, but his contributions toward helping others are anything but small.
Since moving from the Toronto suburbs to Beamsville in 1983 and starting what is now a thriving business, this year's recipient of the Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award has had his hand in many of the charitable and volunteer activities in his hometown community.
Whether it's promoting new businesses with ads in the newspaper, aiding the local Community Care Organization, serving on the Chamber of Commerce, raising money for the Lions Club, organizing golf-outing fund raisers or coaching his son's hockey team, you'll likely find Mr. Gilbert's fingerprint.
``Eric enjoys kick-starting goodwill community projects and is a tremendously proud booster of his adopted town,'' said Ray Konkle, mayor of Lincoln, Ontario, which includes the towns of Beamsville, Vineland and Jordan, Ontario.
Having known him since 1983, ``I can honestly say that I don't believe I have ever met anyone else with the sustained heart, desire and enthusiasm for helping out others less fortunate, either by his everyday deeds or his acts of kindness,'' Mr. Konkle said. ``Eric, when you ask for volunteers, takes two steps forward.''
Yet, despite the demands of running his own business and helping out in the community, Mr. Gilbert understands that charity begins at home.
``Family always has to be first, there's no question about it,'' he said. ``You have to be very careful you don't use up your family time in performing your functions as a volunteer.''
For his efforts on behalf of Beamsville and surrounding communities, Mr. Gilbert has become the eighth winner and first Canadian recipient of the Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award. It is presented annually by Tire Business to a tire dealer or retreader who is making a difference in his or her community through charitable or civic contributions.
Mr. Gilbert, the immediate past president of the Ontario Tire Dealers Association, was chosen for the award by an independent panel of judges outside the tire industry who cited his ``extraordinary record'' of work on behalf of charities and youth activities.
His efforts, they noted, went well beyond letters of support, gifts and money that many business people routinely provide. ``His involvement was hands-on, direct and significant, both in time given and results obtained,'' they said.
Mr. Gilbert-co-owner of Ericway Tire Inc. in Beamsville with his wife, Gerry-was honored Oct. 29 during the Tire Association of North America's International Tire Expo in Las Vegas. He received an engraved medal and a $1,000 donation from Tire Business to the charity of his choice.
This year, the money is going to the Community Care Organization of West Niagara in Beamsville, a non-profit group that helps people in financial distress or crisis situations.
A native of Swift Current, Newfoundland, Mr. Gilbert came to Toronto at age 17, taking a job as a tire technician at Glendale Tire.
He spent 16 years there learning the tire business from the ground up before striking out on his own.
For a year, he peddled tires out of his truck to tire dealers in the Toronto area when he came across the towns of Beamsville and Grimsby while driving the back roads of southern Ontario.
``I thought, `What a great town to set up a tire business,' '' Mr. Gilbert said of Grimsby. ``There were no competitive tire shops.''
Unable to find a suitable location in that community, he remembered seeing a gas station for sale in Beamsville. He and his wife bought the building and Ericway Tire was born.
It took only two weeks after opening Ericway Tire before Mr. Gilbert began getting involved in his new town. A customer invited him to a local Lions Club meeting, where he learned of that organization's dedication to community projects.
He joined and before long began noticing that many of the people he was meeting through the Lions were also coming into his dealership as customers.
This brought the realization that ``a lot of the community work we do has some tremendous spin-offs for business,'' he said.
Initially, his contributions to the Lions Club were motivated, in part, by their impact on his dealership, Mr. Gilbert admitted. But over the years, he began to enjoy the volunteer work. ``I think it's a great enhancement for one's personality to have the opportunity to participate in a lot of the community events and charities,'' he said.
For a small business such as Ericway Tire-with six employees, including Mr. Gilbert's son Chris-giving to the community, running the business and taking care of family are intertwined.
Some charitable and volunteer work ends up helping the business where the community ``supports you because you support them,'' he said.
``Then there's the portion, that's personal,'' he continued, ``where you lace up your running shoes and get out there and do the different things hands on. Those are the things where you get your personal enjoyment.''
For Mr. Gilbert, this blend of business, family and community-mindedness manifests itself in many ways.
In 1991 he obtained his coaching certificate so he could coach his son's school hockey team. Several years later he befriended the local, non-profit Junior C hockey team as a major sponsor when it was in danger of folding.
To support the 4-H club, he places monthly ads in a local farming publication introducing new 4-H members.
``These (4-H) families are customers of yours for life when parents see the tribute to their daughter,'' Mr. Gilbert said. ``That's the type of dollars Ericway spends with community involvement.''
He places similar advertisements in weekly newspapers, welcoming new businesses to the Lincoln area.
His emphasis on family also colors his work for the Lions Club.
For years he participated in the club's weekend fund-raising efforts. But seven years ago he bought a vacation cottage and his weekends there began to conflict with his Lions activities.
So he initiated the one-man job of running the ``Nevada'' fund-raiser-selling instant-win tickets at local restaurants with the proceeds going to the Lions Club. This was a project he could do during the week without jeopardizing family time.
To date, Mr. Gilbert has raised more than $50,000 for the Lions, which is using the money to pay off the debt on a sports complex in Beamsville.
``I like it,'' he said of his ``Nevada'' activities. ``It's something I can really fit into my routine. It makes me feel good, and I can still go to (club) meetings and still be an active participant.''
Mr. Gilbert applied this same philosophy to a recent golf tournament he helped organize to raise $8,100 for his daughter Jenna's high school rowing team.
He gave up two days of work to get the tournament going, he said, noting that he likely could have made several thousand dollars more for his dealership had he spent the time there.
``Work is more flexible,'' he said. ``I'm more often willing to give up some work time to do volunteer work.''
Mr. Gilbert's effort to improve life in Lincoln is done with little fanfare. He enjoys starting charitable and fund-raising endeavors and then, once they're successful, putting his efforts into something new.
When on Canada's 125th birthday he was honored with a medal for outstanding community service, he was pleased to learn he wasn't alone.
``The nice part about that was that, in my way of thinking, I wasn't singled out,'' he said, recognizing others' charitable and volunteer work.
``It's subtle what he does,'' said Lincoln Mayor Konkle. ``He doesn't look for recognition. Every time I see Eric, he's doing something for the community.''
Those ``somethings'' include annually donating a bicycle that is raffled off at the Lincoln County Fair as an incentive for youngsters to attend. It means serving on the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce where he is currently on his second stint as president.
Cathy McNiven, chamber office manager, welcomes Mr. Gilbert's participation because he's an active member. ``Some board members don't volunteer. He actually does it,'' she said. ``He follows through on what he said he will do.''
Or his involvement might be supporting the Community Care Organization of West Niagara, which operates the local food bank and clothing program.
Mr. Gilbert's been a part of Community Care for at least 13 years, said Connie Bucknall, the agency's executive director. ``He believes in what we do, and it takes a person of compassion to understand that.''
Mr. Gilbert supports Community Care in different ways, Ms. Bucknall said. He's coordinated the agency's food and toy drive at Christmas and for three years was responsible for the collection of 12-15 tons of food and toys using Ericway trucks. Recently, he helped raise the money to update the collection barrels and signs for those annual drives.
He also provides the agency with much-needed business and marketing expertise and ``has been the one to keep the Chamber on board with us,'' Ms. Bucknall said. And he's forever promoting Community Care in the business community.
It's tough, she said, for business owners to make Community Care a priority, ``so the community (support) isn't always there.'' But with her caseloads growing by 35 percent in the last four years, the need is greater than ever.
``One of the reasons we've survived for 35 years is because of people like Eric,'' she said.