The Sears building in the Station Mall has been reoccupied… for the time being, at least.
Over 50 volunteers are giving their time and energy this season so families in need can have a Merry Christmas.
Christmas Cheer is a six-week campaign that collects new and gently used toys and non-perishable items and distributes them to 50 “sub-depots” that range from Batchawana down to Bruce Mines. These depots then distribute the baskets to 1600-1800 families in need.
Over the six-week span, volunteers clean and package toys donated by community drop-offs and initiatives like Stuff-A-Bus, box canned goods, among other tasks.
Diane Marshall, the Chirstmas Cheer Department Convenor, has been involved with the campaign since 1997 and has been convening since 2007. She told SaultOnline it feels good to be part of a group of volunteers that “make the magic happen.”
Jill Raycroft has been volunteering for Christmas Cheer for over 40 years. She oversees the packing areas for toys and canned goods, and acts as Diane’s “right-hand person” in some regards.
She said she got involved all those years ago after a friend who was already volunteering there asked Raycroft to come help her out.
“I helped her that year and I came back the next year, and the next year I was asked if I would head up this department,” she said. “And I’ve watched it grow from just a few hundred families up to our 1600-1800.”
In her 40+ years of volunteering, Raycroft said she’s seen many changes in the campaign.
“When I started this, it was mostly gently used toys which we refurbished and gave out, you did get the odd new toy,” she said.
Now, almost every child gets a new toy as well as a gently used one.
“I always said that when it got to the point where every child got something new, that would be time for me to retire,” she joked. “That happened a long time ago.”
She said she intends to continue volunteering until “it’s not fun anymore.”
“It’s just fun, I enjoy the people that I’m working with here.”
This campaign usually has 50-70 core volunteers that have been with the organization for many years who come help out with the packing of the toys and non-perishable items, and on “Packing Day” Dec. 20, numerous people volunteer to pack the perishable items to be shipped along with the toys and canned goods to the sub-depots, where families are then called to pick their parcels up.
Packing day perishables are purchased out of the Santa Clause Fund (a fund that’s raised over $2.5 million for the community’s less fortunate since it’s inception in 1981)- not donated. These items come in one day prior to Packing Day.
Marshall said it feels great to be making a difference in the community and helping people that need a hand up.
“It’s a community effort – not only are the people working here, but we have all the people that donate – whether it be monetary donations, or gifts of toys or canned goods,” she said. “A lot of people make this happen and it takes quite a bit of money, and it also takes a lot of power here, and people donate themselves for six weeks to make this happen.”
This year, the organization was lucky enough to be able to use the spacious Sears Building in the Station Mall. In previous years, they’ve had to settle for smaller, cramped spaces to set up their campaign.
“You never know until the last minute where you’re going to be,” Raycroft explained. “And to set it up, and that is part of my job – to set it up as to where everybody is going to be situated. Because, as you can see, we need the most room for our area, but it’s not easy to do and we’ve been in some really tight places.”
This year, the Station Mall has also set up a corral drop-off in the middle of the Mall where people can leave non-perishable food items, toiletries and toys. Raycroft said this year, they’re not seeing as many canned goods and non-perishable foods as usual, and are in need of more.
Both Marshall and Raycroft say they think this campaign is a great way to make a difference and help people out during the holiday season. Raycroft has also involved her family in this initiative since they were young, and now her great grandchildren are getting into the spirit of the holidays, fundraising so they can buy toys for others in need.
“They do this fundraising, and they go out and they buy toys, and they bring them in, and great grandma goes shopping with their mom and them,” she said. “So that’s keeping involvement, that’s getting involvement, I think, and teaching them. So you see that, and just to know that you’re helping other people, that’s a good thing.”
Christmas Cheer is taking applications from people in need up until Dec. 7. Donated items can be dropped off at the garden centre doors of the Sears building right up until Dec, 20, and any unused toys will be saved for next year’s Christmas Cheer event.