Few things are more exciting for children than opening gifts at Christmas and a local group of women wants to help as many children as possible share in that excitement regardless of their financial situation.
“Kids are told that gifts from Santa are rewards for being good so, what are poor children supposed to think when they get nothing for Christmas?” asked group co-founder Joanne.
“They don’t know anything about economics and poverty. They just see all the other kids coming back to school after Christmas holidays with their new clothes and new toys and wonder what they did wrong.”
Joanne, who has asked that we not publish her last name, is one of the founders of A Little Relief, an independent Facebook-based group that collects toys, clothing and food for children and families during the holidays.
“We started giving out Easter baskets in 2016 and then we did Christmas,” said co-founder Cheryl Steffer-Marks. “We do all the little stuff along the way like donating to Marianne’s Place, the Drop In Centre and 40 Baker, which is now Ed’s Bench. We try to help out however and whenever we can. Last year we started the food cupboard and every year our community grows and we get more and more people asking for help.”
The, A Little Relief, Christmas campaign has grown steadily over the past three years.
“I was looking back on our notes and we were trying to do five people the first Christmas and we ended up doing 13,” said Steffer-Marks. “Right now, we have 29 families with 70 kids and two more families applied to Joanne today.”
They are not a registered charity and started out paying for most of the gifts themselves.
“The first year Joanne and I paid for almost everything ourselves,” said Steffer-Marks. “The second year we were lucky to find our third administrator, Jen Nelson, who is really good at getting donors. This year people are actually donating to whole families. We’ve never had that before. So, we’ve had nine whole families sponsored this year, so far.”
Families join the Facebook group and post their children’s Christmas wish list then Joanne, Steffer-Marks and Nelson try to fill the wish list with the items donated. Their challenge is to match donations to the growing need.
“Everything is catching on,” said Steffer-Marks. “The need is catching on and so is the generosity, but we know people are going to keep requesting and we are going to run out if we don’t get more donations.”
The idea for A Little Relief came out of an effort by Joanne to help Steffer-Marks get through a tough time in her life.
“I had broken up with my husband and I was depressed, and I wasn’t doing anything with my life but sitting around feeling sorry for myself,” said Steffer-Marks. “Joanne wanted to motivate me to get me doing something and she said let’s start this and of course I go gung-ho on everything, so I said absolutely, and there we went.”
They set up a Facebook group and dedicated it to the memory of Steffer-Marks’ younger sister Jo-Ann Emond who died in 2011.
“She left behind three children,” said Steffer-Marks. “She was pregnant at 15 and on her own at 16. She spent her entire life struggling financially as well as mentally. Life may have been different for her if she had the means and better opportunities. She did the best she could and that's all that any of us can do.”
Emond’s story is reflective of many of the people the group is trying to help.
“Some of our families have two working parents and they still can’t make ends meet,” said Steffer-Marks. “There are the working poor and then you take the people who are extremely impoverished like the people on welfare or ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) and the crazy cost of rent, they can’t keep up.”
Linda Claydon has been donating to the campaign since the beginning.
“Both of my children, my daughter who is deceased and my son, had to be on ODSP as a result of a syndrome that they have,” said Claydon. “I understand that this is a special time for the parents and it hurts them to not be able to give. If we can all help one person at a time we can, at least, make one family at a time happy at Christmas.”
Claydon joined the organizers and volunteers Friday night as they collected food and gifts for a pre-Christmas event at 87 Neeve St.
“This year we are sponsoring this whole building and doing the party on Nov. 16,” said Steffer-Marks. “We are giving all the kids in the building three presents each.”
One of those kids is the son of campaign volunteer Noella Menard.
“I have known Cheryl for many years and she is a really good friend of mine,” said Menard. “I just recently got my son back into my care and I almost want to cry. It is just amazing because I feel like I am blessed and loved.”
Joanne and Steffer-Marks said that a growing number of the donors this year are people they helped in the past who simply want to pay it forward.
“As soon as I get myself on my feet permanently, I want to be a part of just helping people too,” said Menard. “They do this because of love and God and caring and compassion.”
To learn more about A Little Relief, join the group or make a donation visit here.