Folks who took part in the second annual Hog Shed Scavenger Hunt this summer helped women and children fleeing domestic violence, with their hunt entry fees going directly to Women’s Place of South Niagara.

Welland-based realtor Garth Paley with RE-MAX Niagara Realty and his wife, Jennifer, longtime supporters of local charities who often participate in motorcycle rides to support community causes, decided they needed to do something to help struggling small business stay afloat when COVID-19 hit last year.

But Paley said the couple also saw the toll social isolation was taking on people as the pandemic dragged on.

So they created their inaugural scavenger hunt last year, listing sites across Niagara such as small shops, locally-owned restaurants and historic sites for people to visit in their cars and take selfies with. Along the way, they figured people would also support the businesses while the event raised more than $4,000 for Pathstone Mental Health and drew more than 150 participants.

This past July, the second-annual hunt that took place over a month saw $14,000 raised for Women’s Place, which runs the Nova House emergency shelter in Niagara Falls and the Serenity Place shelter in Welland, through the $25 entry fee of more than 270 people, plus donations from local corporate sponsors.

“We didn’t expect the numbers; the growth was phenomenal,” said Paley.

He said many of the participants weren’t aware of some of the attractions, eateries and historic sites in their own back yards. “It’s amazing how many people in Niagara didn’t know about these spots,” he said on Friday after donating the money to Women’s Place.

But the couple also wanted to help people overcome loneliness during the pandemic: they started a Facebook page where participants could post their hunt selfies and tell their stories and it blossomed into an online community that brought people together, said Paley.

“It gave them an excuse to go do something,” said Paley. “It gave them a purpose.”

The money is crucial to Women’s Place, an agency that has to raise $550,000 a year just to keep the lights on normally, which has seen major fundraisers such as the Book Riot that normally brings in about $72,000 a year cancelled due to the pandemic, said development and stewardship director Amanda Braet.

“Garth and Jennie have an incredible passion to give back and help others in their community,” she said. “They well-surpassed their fundraising goal, engaged the community during an isolating time, and raised crucial funding to support women and children affected by domestic abuse.”

Braet said the support came at a “critical” time when domestic violence rates and the level of violence has seen a disturbing surge.

“The stressors that continue to impact many throughout the pandemic have amplified dangerous situations and leave some women in lethal situations,” she said.

“The services of Women’s Place are needed now more than ever,” but the agency is struggling to meet its annual fundraising goal to sustain current services, said Braet.

“The $14,000 that was raised through the Hog Shed Scavenger Hunt will help change and save lives, and we are incredibly thankful for their efforts,” she said.