By Carol Christian, Connect Contributor
Students and staff of Father Patrick Mercredi Community High School have again been joined by countless volunteers and donors, busily preparing for the 32nd annual Santas Anonymous.
This student-led organization campaign helps bring Christmas to those families with children or seniors who find themselves in financial need; unable to provide a Christmas dinner or a gift for each child under the tree. They are referred by family, co-workers, community agencies or themselves.
“Santas Anonymous is possible because so many people come together each year to make it possible,” says Jennifer Downy, a teacher advisor and one of the co-ordinators of the campaign.
“The pride that the students and staff of Father Mercredi gain from being involved in the campaign fosters the hard work and dedication that is necessary to pack all of the hampers.”
Even former students come back year after year to help.
“And of course, the huge hearts and incredible generosity of our community members is such an integral feature of this program.”
Eithne Pierre, Downey’s partner on the campaign, adds: “Santas Anonymous has lasted so long because it is fuelled by the energy of our students and continues to benefit from the extreme generosity of the municipality of Wood Buffalo.”
Students participating in the campaign gain the opportunity to learn and apply leadership skills in a real life setting, says Pierre. Students are involved in planning and implementation of fun and fund raising activities.
“Through this experience, our students develop their communication and organizational skills while also developing a sense of empathy and appreciation for the importance of social justice organizations in a community.”
Though the hampers aren’t being delivered until Dec. 16, the work started in October when time was spent working with students to develop their leadership skills and generate donations through various fundraising and letter writing campaigns, explained Pierre. The weeks in December are spent organizing the toy and food inventory that have been collected and assembling the hampers. The hampers are put together by the students, their families and staff in the school gym which transforms into a Christmas music-filled workshop.
Traditional hampers contain a Christmas dinner as well as a variety of groceries that last an average family approximately a week. Children aged up to 17 receive presents, and infants and seniors receive a special package.
Over the past few years, the campaign has distributed between 550 and 650 hampers each year, with the number increasing a little each year, noted Downey.
“This year the need has definitely increased. The number of hampers we expect to deliver to Fort McMurray and the outlying communities is probably going to be around 950. We will cross reference with other organizations that provide hampers to ensure we do not duplicate services so that we can reach as many people in need in our community as possible.”
She recognizes families have grown to rely on Santas Anonymous at Christmas, but it’s also used by those who are going through a brief, but tough, period and just need that little bit of extra support to help them get through the holidays.
“Santas is able to alleviate some of that stress of the parents during what can be one of the most difficult times of the year and hopefully make Christmas a little brighter for the children.”
While fund-raising continues for the campaign, its biggest push, the Miracle Marathon, is coming up on Dec. 9 and 10.
“The members of this community seem to always rally around each other and give the support necessary to assist those in need. I really love being part of such a generous community,” says Downey.
She is also quick to point out two highlights of this year’s campaign:
Corry is an amazing 13-year-old girl from Elliot Lake, Ontario, who wanted to help after she heard about the wildfire and all the children here who lost everything. With the help of her mom and grandma, she collected dolls, cleaned them up, knitted outfits for them and repackaged them.
“Her mom got in touch with us a couple of months back and shipped them to us. They are absolutely adorable. We are so grateful and proud of Corry.”
Another really awesome story, said Downey, is about a group of truckers from Alberta who wanted to do something for the community after the wildfire.
“Todd Woitas contacted us in October to let us know that he and the members of Alberta Large Cars had taken it upon themselves to do a toy drive in Edmonton and that they had four pallets of toys to bring to Fort McMurray. This was our first donation of the campaign. The generosity we are seeing this year is not just coming for our own community, but from across Alberta and Canada as well and it is so amazing.”