Christmas is the time of year when many people have time off work, enjoy opening presents under a lit-up, decorated tree, and come together to enjoy a feast with family and friends. However, behind closed doors, Christmas is a sad season for those impacted by poverty, and for many the pandemic has heightened this problem.
According to recent data from the National Retail Federation, the average household in the United States spends $998 on gifts, food, and decorations during the holidays.
In particular, Christmas can put a lot of stress and financial strain on families, which is why every year charities across Metro Vancouver, like the Surrey Christmas Bureau, help low-income families get toys, stocking stuffers, and grocery cards so they can celebrate with peace of mind.
“It’s almost like a pop-up Toys R Us,” says Lisa Werring, the executive director for the Bureau.
One member of each family cluster can apply for assistance online through the Bureau’s website after they provide their I.D., financial information, number of children in the household under 18, and their proof of residency in Surrey.
Once approved, parents give the Bureau staff their children’s wish lists and volunteers help pack toy hampers for each child. The hampers consist of three toys containing one small, medium, and large toy with a Christmas stocking filled with small items, including a book if they have them in stock. In addition to the hampers, every family receives a grocery gift card providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Christmas Day.
Werring says the Bureau accepts new items such as unwrapped toys, books, universal-size clothing such as hats, gloves, scarves and more. Those who donate can also drop them off at their local Surrey fire hall, where volunteers collect them daily.
As of Nov. 29, 300 families have already picked up toys, says Werring. They expect to see over 2,000 families this season, which will include around 4,700 children. Due to high demand, they accepted applications until Dec. 4 to ensure they could provide enough resources for families.
However, the process hasn’t always been easy. Before the pandemic, families would line up to register for the Surrey Christmas Bureau and would have roughly 300 volunteers to help. Last year, the organization had to move their application process entirely online and saw their volunteer numbers drop.
To help with the transition, Werring says the Bureau received a grant from the federal government that was offered to charities throughout Canada to assist with COVID-19 protocols. This included investing in application software, PPE such as masks, plexiglass barriers, and hand sanitizer for volunteers and staff. For this season, they are seeing fewer people signing up to help, though they do have high school student volunteers who are a part of the co-op program from Guildford Park Secondary.
“Most of our volunteers are seniors, so they’re particularly vulnerable to the virus. We do everything we can to make sure everybody is protected,” says Werring.
“We figured out a way to manage with what we have, and we do want to keep the numbers controllable in the building so that everybody has sufficient social distancing space.”
After serving for five years as the Bureau’s executive director, there is only one memory from this year that stands out to her.
Werring met a single mother who recently moved to Canada from Afghanistan in August with her seven children. The mother happened to walk by the Surrey Christmas Bureau and stepped inside to inquire what it was about. One of the volunteers speaks six languages and was able to communicate with the mother and help get her registered.
“We got her information so that she’ll be able to come and get toys for her children, and she’s got something happy to look forward to and is spending time this Christmas with her family here, safe in Surrey,” says Werring.
“When we see parents leave here, they’re just so happy to be able to give their children toys and know they’re going to have that special holiday meal they’ll all share together. Then when these kids go back to school in January, they’re going to be full of stories of their new toy they got, just like all their friends,” she says.
“Kids should all feel the same when they go back to school.”
Werring says charities like the Bureau are important this time of year.
“The sense of isolation and loneliness when people are struggling financially to provide is very stressful and emotionally exhausting for parents, and kids feel that too,” she says.
“It provides a sense of relief and happiness for families to come together at the holiday time.”
Teresa Kelly, who has been volunteering with the Bureau since 2019, says it’s important that people are looked after because the holidays are the worst time of year to have no familial support.
Kelly helps people with their applications over the phone and verifies their information such as bank statements and proof of address. Most of the applicants are people who have recently immigrated to Canada, or are on refugee status, she says. Often they say it is more difficult to find employment, and many rely on charities like the Bureau.
“I came to Canada 40 years ago as an immigrant, so I know what it’s like to be on that side of things,” says Kelly. “It’s all about giving back … it’s important that all kids are treated the same.”
“You see the smiles on those people’s faces and it just does your heart good,” she says. “It’s important that people feel that they’re being respected, being looked after, and they can put food on the table, which is a good thing these days.”
Outside of Surrey, many other organizations like the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC) are helping those in need during the holiday season.
The DEWC provides meals, counselling, and programs that empower women in the community. Leading up to and during the holidays, the centre collects gently used or brand new clothing, toiletries, shoes, and other donations to provide gifts to those in the centre.
“This is a space where they can come and have a break from the streets and from their difficult life … where they can find help and the resources to move on with what they want to do,” says Sara Nunez, the manager for the drop-in location.
Every year, the DEWC offers a few holiday dinners throughout December where women and their children are given gifts and participate in activities afterwards. Due to provincial lockdowns last year, the centre wasn’t able to offer the dinner. However, Nunez says they expect to host the dinner outside this season and are preparing for over 400 people.
“This year, we are going to have a big street celebration where we close the street and rent a big tent with heaters and fancy tables for the women,” says Nunez.
“Christmas is very sad for women, especially when you’re homeless,” she says. “They are lonely, they’re missing their families and their children. So they come to gather [here] and that’s why it’s important to have it open.”
In addition to the dinner, the centre uses its social media to spread awareness and spark people’s interest in holding fundraising events to raise money and donate to the charity. They are also a part of GivingTuesday, a movement that motivates people to give something to a charity of their choice.
Last year the centre faced some challenges, like not being able to collect donations for a while, and when they were able to again, donations had to be left in a room for two days to prevent cross-contamination.
“It was very hard for the women because they didn’t have clothes to change or warm blankets and stuff for a little while,” says Nunez.
However, one positive change this year is that the DEWC has roughly 50 volunteers to help around the centre and with events such as the dinner. Later this month, the organization will open another emergency shelter just before Christmas to provide more women with support.
“The conditions of the pandemic were disastrous in the Downtown Eastside,” says Lisa Curry, the DEWC fundraising and grants coordinator.
“Also, overdoses increased gender-based violence and increased isolation. Isolation at the same time as the loss of basic need services and mental health supports was catastrophic for the community,” she says.
Curry says the centre has seen a 50 per cent increase of women accessing their services.
“Specifically this Christmas, we will be serving more women than we’re used to, thankfully we have these new sites, but the need has increased,” says Curry. “This is definitely the time of year that we try to bring back the Christmas spirit.”
While organizations like the Surrey Christmas Bureau and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre have seen progress with hosting events this year and weathering the hardships through the pandemic, the Surrey Urban Mission Society (SUMS) has been experiencing some challenges on what they can do this holiday season.
The organization provides shelter, clothing, and three meals a day in the Whalley neighbourhood. Romeo Kabanda, director of operations and volunteer coordinator, says they can’t host events like they normally did before the pandemic, and can’t accommodate many volunteers in the building due to limited space.
“When the pandemic hit, all of our volunteers left. That was challenging when you’re using a lot of volunteers to help you out,” says Kabanda. “But, during this Christmas period, we have been getting a lot more volunteers.”
SUMS has been gathering tons of donations from the community, such as food and clothing, and the mission is currently planning to prepare its annual Christmas dinner later this month.
Kabanda says they plan to serve around 200 people from all four of their shelters, with an additional 70 people outside. To help serve people outside during the pandemic, SUMS has installed a drive-thru-style window to hand out food in an easier way.
He adds that this time of year gets so busy because “everybody’s got the festive spirit, so we get overloaded with a lot of donations, which is nice.”
Although there have been challenges persevering through the pandemic and the holiday season, the Surrey Christmas Bureau, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, and the Surrey Urban Mission Society are still actively looking for volunteers and donations to help those in need this Christmas.
“It’s just seeing happiness, there’s a lot of negativity sometimes that surrounds the people that we serve,” Kabanda says.
“We always recommend that they speak to the person and get to know who they are, that person is a human being as well.”
“We just want to make sure that everybody is included,” Werring says. “That’s what it’s all about.”