The kindness of strangers
No matter how much we talk about the meaning of Christmas being a mixture of family, faith and celebration, for most children, it wouldn't be Christmas without the presents.
Yet there are families not far from you whose year-round struggles to make ends meet are compounded as the holiday season nears, and efforts to provide a little holiday happiness seem futile.
For single mother-of-three Shelley Grant, those difficulties are all too familiar.
It's a tough topic to discuss for the 32-year-old, who lives in Surrey with daughter Kayleigh, 12, and sons Jayven, 6, and Malakai, 18 months.
As a stay-at-home mom, Grant finds creative ways to get by each month – she has recently taken up ‘coupon clipping’ in an effort to garner savings on her shopping bills – but admits that the holiday season often comes with a sense of burden more so than a sense of good cheer.
That is, until a few years ago, when Grant found the courage to ask for help – something she knows is difficult for others in her shoes.
A client of the Surrey Christmas Bureau, her family receives presents, gift cards, diapers, formula and food vouchers from generous donors across the city at a time when they need it the most, easing the stress of the holiday season and providing her kids with a fun, memorable Christmas morning. Grant hopes that by sharing her family's appreciation publicly, it will encourage others – both those who need help and those who can offer it – to get involved.
The impact the bureau has had on her family, Grant says, is indescribable.
“It’s hard to explain,” she tells Indulge, as tears well up in her eyes. “The generosity of people is amazing. There are so many things that my kids have got that I would never have been able to get them.”
Having used the Christmas Bureau’s services for five years off and on, Grant recalls that, at first, it was not easy accepting help from strangers.
“I have a hard time asking for help, so at first I was really uncomfortable,” she says, encouraging others in her situation to visit the bureau.
“The first year we had a sponsor, and meeting them… the emotions…,” Grant trails off.
“I just remember her bawling,” Kayleigh chimes in with a giggle.
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The Grants are among hundreds of families helped each year by the Surrey Christmas Bureau, according to co-ordinator K.C. Gilroy.
Last holiday season, the bureau registered approximately 1,700 families, which translates to roughly 5,000 children in Surrey.
Another 200 or 300 families are referred to other agencies, such as the Langley Christmas Bureau or Deltassist support society (see sidebar), depending on where they live.
The high number of those who use the bureau speaks to how widespread the need is throughout the community, but also to the vast generosity of those willing to lend a hand, as no one who registers with the bureau goes home empty-handed.
The history of lending a hand dates back far beyond the Surrey Christmas Bureau’s official formation as a society in 1999.
“There’s always been Christmas assistance of some kind in this community,” Gilroy says, noting that churches often took the reins throughout the first several decades of the 20th century, followed by Surrey Community Services and the food bank in more recent years.
In its modern-day format, the bureau sets up shop in early November – this year located at 10636 King George Blvd., in the old Buy Rite Foods building – where dozens of volunteers get to work registering applicants.
In order to qualify for help, families must live within the boundaries of Surrey, must have a child age 18 or younger and must be low-income – as determined by the national poverty line.
Of the 1,700 or so families that register, around 600 are placed into the adopt-a-family program, where they’re matched with donors from the community. Donors make contact with their adoptive families to find out the ages, interests and any particular ‘wish-list’ items the children might have, then set up a day and time to deliver all the goodies – including food items and gift cards for Christmas dinner.
Those who aren’t matched with donors have the opportunity to return and browse the large selection of donated toys and gift cards, as well as an extensive used-items department.
“It takes up a lot of room,” Gilroy said of the ever-popular used section. “But people go through it and they get household items, warm clothing, boots, inline skates. It’s a great reduce, reuse and recycle operation.”
Although things wrap up at the bureau by Dec. 21, Gilroy makes a point of being at the bureau on Christmas Eve, in case someone happens to come by looking for last-minute help.
A few years ago she was visited by a parole officer the night before Christmas, wondering if they’d be able to help a woman who was just released from custody.
“It was the first time she had her kids for Christmas, and she had just been released,” Gilroy explains, noting they were able to set the woman up with a number of essential items. “That’s why I hang around on Christmas Eve.”
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It takes a huge network of dedicated volunteers and donors to ensure the Christmas season runs smoothly at the bureau and for those who seek its help.
With 127 active volunteers – performing duties ranging from registration, stocking and shopping to pickup and deliveries – the bureau also receives a helping hand from a range of community organizations, including schools, sports teams and businesses.
“It’s amazing the diversity of people that help us out,” Gilroy says.
But each year, as the number of families seeking assistance grows, so does the need for help. The biggest demand is for those willing to sponsor a family – it could be a business, a family or a group of friends wanting to give back this holiday season.
If you can’t sponsor a family, simply taking up a collection at your workplace and then going on a shopping spree for toys to donate is another great way to help.
“Items for teens are always tough for us – things like Eagles tickets, hockey sticks or cosmetics,” Gilroy said. “Even though they’re a bit older, they still want to be a part of Christmas.”
If you have a truck and are willing to volunteer some time, drivers are also an integral part of the bureau’s operations.
Becoming involved with the bureau is not only a great way to help long-term Surrey families, such as the Grants, but also those who have arrived in the community from war-torn regions across the world, seeking a safer life for their families.
“I always say you can judge the global strife by who’s in line at the Surrey bureau,” Gilroy says, noting that last year they saw an influx of Syrian families seeking help.
“The really moving thing for me is when a family will come in and bring some toys or a cheque and say, ‘six years ago, when we first came here, the Christmas bureau helped us,’” she says. “It makes me love Canada that much more, and love living here.”
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The opportunity to give back to an organization that has provided so much is something Grant says she hopes for one day, too. Without the bureau’s help, she says, she doesn’t know what her family would do this time of year.
“It’s just such an amazing organization, it lifts your spirits at a time when you really need it the most. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to help other people out.”
As the countdown to Christmas morning gets underway in the Grant household, the children are busy deciding what to ask Santa for this year. Grant, on the other hand, is counting her blessings, and sending a message to all those involved in the Surrey Christmas Bureau.
“Thank you, so much, on behalf of so many people. You’ve helped to make such a difference. Thank you.”