The Singing Christmas Tree, Crescendo, Soaring with Song, Harvest Celebration – what do all of these events have in common? One man determined to share music and inspiration with the world, one song and one event at a time. His name is John Cameron, and he’s the driving force behind some of Edmonton’s most anticipated charitable events.
“When I was a young kid, my parents used to take us to concerts all the time. I remember going to a Helen Reddy concert. One of her songs, You’re My World – something about it just hit me,” he says of his early foray into the world of musical entertainment. “I love music! I love this entertainment thing! I’ve been taking piano lessons since I was five years old, but when I was going to university, I didn’t anticipate this.”
“This” would be his becoming the CEO of the John Cameron Changing Lives Foundation, formerly known as the Edmonton Singing Christmas Tree Foundation. Through the foundation, Cameron produces up to five large-scale events each year, and the proceeds from the events go to various local charities. He does this while also being the president and CEO of Keller Construction Ltd.
“I have a great team in both companies,” he laughs when asked how he manages it all. “You rely on your team. Empower them and they run with it.”
He loves to build walls, paint and work with his hands. “The tedious stuff, I love that! Put some music on and away you go! I love that!” he exclaims, showing how construction and music events complement each other in his world. It is, however, his Changing Lives Foundation that feeds his soul.
So, what is the Foundation and how does it work?
“It’s just that – changing lives,” smiles Cameron. “It’s about finding local talent, putting it on the stage and putting on an amazing show that people see, experience and leave uplifted. They leave challenged and they leave wanting to get involved in supporting the charity.
“It has been very successful, monetarily. Through Changing Lives, we have been able to give money to quite a few organizations in Edmonton; however, it has also been internally successful with the people in our shows. Our choir [for the Singing Christmas Tree] has become its own organism. They have their own Facebook page. Large choirs are hard to find. They are becoming non-existent, but when we put out an email and said we are starting the Singing Christmas Tree, we had 180 people sign up in two days!
“I get calls and emails about people that can sing, dance or play an instrument. There is nothing better than seeing a 12-year-old get up and belt out a song where the audience is in awe, and where they get a standing ovation. You see the kid walk off the stage feeling better and with self-esteem. It changes them. It really impacts their lives. There is nothing better than that.”
This year marks the 48th anniversary of the Signing Christmas Tree in Edmonton.
“It really is the best Christmas show in the city. Those are not just my words. We hear that over and over again,” confirms Cameron. “It’s different ever year. The music is different, the comedy stuff we do is different. It’s a highlight for many people at this time of the year. It gets everybody in the Christmas spirit. It’s emotional and it’s fun. People will cry and laugh, and they will leave uplifted. It raises money to buy instruments and lessons for kids.”
He’s just as excited about the Foundation’s latest show.
“The inaugural Crescendo was this year. It’s an event in support of mental health. For 10 years, I had a vision of doing a concert with a full symphony orchestra in the Francis Winspear Centre for Music, with all the proceeds going to the mental health cause. It’s a personal issue for me and my family. I made a commitment that we would raise $5 million in five years for mental health causes.
“We knew Crescendo would be popular, but we had no idea how it would blow up! People have gotten behind getting rid of the stigma of mental health. It was an amazing concert, and we will be doing it again next year.”
The Foundation goes beyond its own productions to help other causes in the city. For example, Harvest Celebration.
“We do Harvest Celebration for the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation to benefit the Lois Hole Hospital for Women,” Cameron points out. “We have done this for the last seven years. Tickets sell out immediately and the event gets bigger every year. You see how people are changed through that [event].”
Cameron discusses why the John Cameron Changing Lives Foundation is so important for Edmonton and Alberta, and why he believes in this city.
“Lots of local organizations need support financially, and also with manpower and with volunteering. We do that. We get involved and try to help them out by using local talent. I try to find these young diamonds in the rough that sing or play the guitar. It really makes a difference. Using people from Edmonton puts Edmonton on the map, and now we’ve had requests for Crescendo to go all across Canada!
“The people of Edmonton get involved. Anytime you ask, people are there. The entrepreneurial spirit – I like that. I like the arts community with all the different festivals we have. There is so much vibrancy in the city when it comes to the arts and the entrepreneurial spirit. We are not crazy about the weather, but we embrace it! Edmonton is just a great city!”
He cites, “Watching people develop and grow on stage, get involved and make a difference,” as his favourite part of the job, in addition to, “Watching the audience stand, seeing their tears and knowing they have been changed. Then they go out, get involved and make a difference. Even my team here: watching them succeed is what really rewards me.”
Creating beautiful performances and life-changing events has its challenges, however, and keeping the show fresh is at the top of Cameron’s list.
“I don’t want people to say they have already seen that show. It always needs to be different so they don’t know what they are going to see.” To that end, he keeps mixing it up, bringing in the Tenors one year, and featuring the former frontman from the Barenaked Ladies the next. “It has to be fresh or people just go away.”
Yet, he’s willing to do whatever it takes keep the momentum going.
“I’m just focused on keeping it fresh, making a difference, and picking new talent,” he smiles. “I don’t sit back enough and read the reviews and the comments. I probably should, but when I do, it’s pretty overwhelming because I never thought it would come to all this.”
With both Keller Construction and the John Cameron Changing Lives Foundation in his life, Cameron knows he has to stay focused and agile. He shares the lessons he’s learned about balancing it all while moving both companies forward, year after year.
“Take a risk!” he encourages. “If you sit back and don’t take a risk, you won’t get the highs. I’ve taken lots of risks. Not all of them have worked, but you need to [take a risk] if you want to make a difference.
“From my personal experience, you need to be humble. Be there to lead, but let others succeed. Be there to support them, but let the results show. Let your team succeed and give them the spotlight.
“You can’t do it all yourself. You just can’t. You need to rely on your team. I’m so fortunate that I have an amazing team at Keller and at my Foundation that allows me to do the things that I’m good at, and they do what they are great at. That is why we are so successful.
“Time flies…time flies! If I had thought 25 years would have gone by this quickly, I would have done a lot of things differently. I look at young people trying to succeed and they give up their kids or their wives. You HAVE to have that balance.”
Cameron works toward that balance by keeping his mind, body and relationships healthy. He enjoys Orangetheory Fitness and tries to do the program five days a week. He enjoys taking his dog, Roxy, to the dog park and loves walking around the river. He travels and listens to the local music in each destination, getting inspiration for the next event. He also enjoys going to concerts and volunteering on boards, and like a true Edmontonian, “I love the Oilers! Love them!”
The philanthropist thanks his parents, Wayne and Marleen, and is sister, Kim, for their support, inspiration and encouragement. He also says of his daughter, Kristen, “She taught me how to keep going and be positive.” He credits Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which he joined in 1998, for helping him to build his company and Foundation.”
“I’m a strong proponent that if you don’t put something in, you can’t take something out,” Cameron concludes. “If everyone in Edmonton just took, there would be nothing left for the people that need help. How many times have you gone to a bank machine and money just came out? Never. You have to put that chipped card in that tells the machine you worked hard and put something in so you can take something out.”
He plans to give back into perpetuity, creating events and initiatives that will live on long after he’s gone. “[The John Cameron Changing Lives Foundation] will continue to make a difference in people’s lives through music. We will also be taking Crescendo on the road across Canada, and we will continue to discover and develop new talent to help all the charities that need help. And we will continue having fun!”