Spreading holiday cheer: The Shoebox Project

Tis the season for giving — or so we’re told. Many of us will probably spend our holidays shopping for presents, eating until our stomachs are about to burst and relaxing in front of the TV while we recover from a sugar coma.

This is not the reality of everyone’s holiday. Many people do not have the money to buy festive luxuries. They may not have family to spend the time with. They may not have their own home in which to celebrate the holidays.

The holidays should not just be about gorging on sugar and shopping until we’re exhausted. They should be about building the community and sharing joy with others.

The Shoebox Project is one way in which the St. Catharines and Brock University community can give back. The Shoebox Project is a nonprofit that launched in 2011 to give gifts and little luxuries to women who cannot buy them. The project began in Toronto and has spread to 24 cities across Canada.

One of the cofounders, Caroline Mulroney Lapham described the project as “an easy way to bring a little joy to women who are going through a difficult time and women who live in poverty. We hope to let them know that the community is thinking about them. It’s an easy way to also give back — something you can share with your family —  children  even — friends and colleagues”.

Dec.3.Ellie.Shoebox1The History

The Shoebox Project was founded by four sisters-in-law, Caroline Mulroney Lapham and Jessica, Vanessa and Katy Mulroney.

Lapham said that the project started when she and her relatives saw a similar gift-giving project happening elsewhere and wanted to take part. Lapham wrote in a Huffington Post article, “I loved the idea for many reasons. It involves women helping women. It requires actually doing something with your hands to create something for someone else. It is not an expensive charitable project. And to top it all off, it didn’t seem like it would be too difficult to organize… The whole idea had a very simple appeal”.

They began by appealing to family and friends. Lapham wrote, “Our stated goal was to collect 156 shoeboxes to give a gift to each of the women staying at the two shelters of the Red Door Family Shelter over the holidays. We each sent out a letter to our friends asking them to participate, and very quickly, in mid-November, the boxes began to arrive”.

Lapham explained the significance behind the shoebox idea: “We were inspired by a similar drive in Montreal. The shoebox offers an easy way to package the gifts in a uniform way, so we can deliver gifts of the same size and value to each woman…There are a lot of shoebox initiatives [such as the Samaritan’s Purse in the U.S.]. I think it’s because it is likely most people have an empty shoebox they can use or [they] can easily get one”.

The project grew quickly. In its first year in Toronto, the Shoebox Project collected 400 boxes and distributed them to individuals in need. In only three years they have substantially increased their number of boxes collected. Last year they collected 1,700 boxes in Toronto and 1,000 in nine other cities across Canada. This year the Shoebox Project hopes to collect 4,000 boxes.

The Shoebox Project comes to St. Catharines

This is the first year the Shoebox Project has come to St. Catharines. All shoeboxes will be given to Gillian’s Place, a local women’s shelter.

Jenna Barrie brought the project to the St. Catharines community. “I heard about this on the news last year in Toronto and decided to make a box.  I sent an email to my coworkers and friends to see if anyone would like to donate.  I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received and my one box turned into five.  I really wanted to bring more awareness to Women’s Shelters and bring the project to my hometown.”

Barrie’s goal is to collect 200 boxes. The boxes can be filled with little luxuries that altogether value approximately $50. The Shoebox Project suggests items like: body lotion, mascara, lipstick, nail polish, toothpaste, a toothbrush, dental floss, nut-free chocolates, cookies and candies, mitts, a hat and a scarf, perfume, a brush, bus tickets, a phone card, gift certificates to Wal-Mart, Tim Horton’s or Shoppers Drug Mart, socks and slippers, curling or straightening irons, craft supplies, journals and a card. They ask that concealers, foundations and razors not be included in the gift.

Norma Sharpe, a member of the Shoebox Project said, “It’s a way for women to feel special, even for one day — to have something just for them that they might not be able to afford”.

“Things like makeup or new socks, even a journal to write in, items that some of us take for granted not realizing if there’s no money those are things you don’t get to have on a day to day basis. I think it’s a way for us to  share with the women to make them feel that someone’s thinking about them.”

Dec.3.Ellie.Shoebox2David Brebner, a member of the board of directors for the Shoebox Project, explained to the Londoner what he feels is so important from the initiative. “To get a gift [is saying], ‘someone’s thinking of you on this special day — you may or may not have kids but we’re thinking about you’…that’s the wonderful thing about [this project],” said Brebner. “It impacts both sides – the community and the people that are gathering around it but it is also clearly, for obvious reasons, impacting the people that feel like they’re supported by their community that have come on hard times for unfortunate reasons.”

Anyone who is interested in putting together a shoebox can deliver it to one of the drop-off locations. Local volunteers deliver these gift boxes to women living in shelters during the holidays and throughout the year. In St. Catharines, the two drop-off locations are Dani’s Bistro at 174 St. Paul Street and Shred Salon and Barbering at 7 Geneva Street. The deadline to drop-off gifts is Dec. 19.

Gillian’s Place, the recipient of the St. Catharines shoebox donations, provides housing for 34 women and their children in the Niagara region. They also assist approximately 2,000 women in the community and since their establishment, have helped over 15,000 women and their children.

Gillian’s Place is a charity and shelter in St. Catharines that has been around since 1977. According to their website, “Gillian’s Place offers hope to women and children by providing safety and support through a range of services and by working through effective partnerships with our community to end violence and abuse”.

They are one of Ontario’s first shelters for abused women and their children. Gillian’s Place operates a 24/7 crisis line and 24-hour support counselling, as well as individual and group therapy. For women not living in the shelter, Gillian’s Place provides outreach counselling; transitional support that assists women with independent living and separation from their abusive partner; and their Family Law Lawyer helps women navigate the legal system.

Gillian’s Place is also running other fundraising initiatives this holiday season to support their clients. They are asking that people “become a star of hope this holiday season and inspire [their] clients to continue their journey to a life free of abuse.” Messages of hope can be mailed to Gillian’s Place. Tree tags with the age and name of a child being helped by Gillian’s Place can be put up in workplaces to encourage employees to purchase a gift for that child.

Gillian’s Place is also running their “Adopt a Family” fundraiser, now over 10 years old. For this program, donors “will receive a wish list, including sizing to shop from.” Donors are encouraged to provide unwrapped gifts and include gift wrapping supplies so that the mom can be involved in wrapping presents for her children.

Dec.4.Ellie.Shoebox3Last year 83 families were “adopted” through this program. Nicole Regehr, Community Development Manager for Gillian’s Place said, “We hope to have enough donors to provide for all the families requiring assistance this year, which we estimate will be around 80″.

Finding a way to give back to your community is an enriching experience. I encourage you to use your passions — whatever they are — to make the world a better place. Foster a cat from the humane society; volunteer with an on-campus organization like The Brock Student Sexual Violence Support Centre, OPIRG-Brock, or Fed Up; or donate your time and resources towards Gillian’s Place or another charitable organization. Volunteering is fitting for the holiday season, but certainly is not something that should only be done at this time of year.  I promise that giving back to your community will only add to your holiday (and life) — not detract from it.

If you would like to volunteer with the Shoebox Project, email stcatharines@shoeboxproject.com. For more information on the Project and on Gillian’s Place, see shoeboxproject.com and womensplacestcatharines.ca

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