Santa’s Helpers: With an estimated more than 1,200 people living on Victoria’s streets this year, a hot meal can go a long way.

Organizations around Victoria grant wishes to those on the other side of the giving tree

For most, the holiday season is a time to give back. But for those who are less fortunate, not knowing where or how to access the available resources can mean families go without.

Organizations around Victoria grant wishes to those on the other side of the giving tree

I still remember walking through the malls at Christmas time as a young child and wondering how all those people were lucky enough to get their names on the giving tree.

Even in our most meager holidays, my mother would spin miracles out of air; sewing up hand-made toys and turning scant offerings into a feast. She didn’t ask for help, but somehow Santa always visited the Pope household — which is why I will never stop believing in the Claus.

“There are a lot of families out there who don’t ask for the help they need this time of year, and it’s not that they are stubborn or defiant — they are fiercely protective and they’ve had enough experience to know it would be foolish to trust everyone,” says Margo d’Archangelo, executive director of the Young Parents’ Support Network. “Pride can sometimes be this beautiful resourcefulness, and I’ve seen families with next to nothing make magic happen.”

For most, the holiday season is a time when Jiminy Cricket reminds our consciences to give back. But for those who are tangled on the other side of the tannenbaum, pride or not knowing where the resources hang can mean families go without. Where do you access hampers, free dinners or gift-giving help? Victoria’s social services offer twinkling stars of hope, no matter the need.

Wish: a hot meal

With an estimated more than 1,200 people living on Victoria’s streets this year, a hot meal can go a long way. Luckily, a number of groups are offering all the fixins’ this season, with plenty to go around. Stop by any of these free, all-welcome locations to warm your tummy.

“There are some people who are reluctant to come in, but it’s all about building trust and relationships,” says Don Evans, Our Place Society executive director. “We don’t call people ‘clients’ or ‘guests’, we call them family. Often a meal is the starting point, then people connect from there about what else they need.”

  • Our Place Society (919 Pandora) will serve its annual Christmas meal Dec. 20, 11:30am-2:30pm, complete with music and community activities. A special turkey dinner will be served Dec. 24, 4-5pm. The organization regularly serves three meals per day, Monday to Friday, and lunch on Saturday and Sunday. In between, a nutrition bar offers hot coffee or tea, baked goods and fruit to help sustain people. A special breakfast will be served Dec. 13, 14, 18, 19, 21 and 27. No meals will be served Dec. 25 and 26, though the drop-in and snack area will be open on Dec. 25, with festivities. Breakfast: 7-8am. Lunch: 11:30am-12:30pm. Dinner: 4-5pm. Nutrition bar: 8-11:30am, 12:30-3:30pm.
  • The Mustard Seed’s Street Café (625 Queens) offers an evening meal Friday and Saturday from 7-9pm. The group also hosts brunch Saturdays and Sundays at noon, and a coffee drop-in Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm. The drop-in is closed Dec 24 to Jan. 2, but meals will be served on the weekend.
  • The Salvation Army (525 Johnson) will host its big holiday meal on Jan. 17, but offers a $2 breakfast Monday to Friday 8-9am, $3 lunch Monday to Friday and Sunday 11:45am-12:30pm, a $5 dinner Monday to Friday 5-5:45pm, and a free coffee-and-donut snack Monday to Friday 10:30-11:30am and 1:30-2:30pm.
  • The Rainbow Kitchen (500 Admirals) offers lunch at their new location Monday to Friday, noon-1pm.
  • The Beacon Bus (910 Kings) delivers dinner to the Blanshard Community Centre Fridays at 5pm, unless it’s called out for another need.
  • The Miracle Kitchen at Living Edge (950 Kings) serves dinner Sundays at 4:30pm.

Santa’s tip: Nothing soothes holiday stress more than perspective, and these organizations can always use volunteers able to serve soup, greet members or help clean up. While most kitchens receive overwhelming assistance around the holidays, plan to be a Christmas superstar and offer your hand through the really busy months: January and February.

Wish: hamper help

Rain Mair is closely connected to the stigma of asking for help. While Mair has volunteered at the Mustard Seed Food Bank since July, the UVic student says she felt a lot of shame when she first had to access resources — at least until she could drop the labels.

“When I had to use the student food bank, I remember feeling really embarrassed, but after a while I realized we are a community; it’s not like one always gives and one receives — we all do our part when we can,” she says.

Like Mair, hundreds of individuals and families access food bank and hamper help year round. While many may have just enough to cover housing, food costs can become impossible, especially when bigger-than-usual meals are expected. The key to accessing these services is to become a client of a food bank like the Mustard Seed, or another resource group.

“We don’t just show up, unexpected, on people’s doorsteps, but we usually have a pretty good idea of our clients who need or would accept extra support, and we can facilitate that,” says d’Archangelo of the Young Parents’ Support Network. “What’s really amazing is that these families will often self-elect and say, ‘Thanks for the offer, but my mom gave us $100 this week, so we’re fine; give the hamper to someone who needs it.’”

Groups like the Young Parents’ Support Network (250-384-0552, ypsn.ca), 1Up: Victoria Single Parent Resource Society (250-385-1114, singleparentvictoria.ca), Women In Need (250-480-4006, womeninneed.ca), the Salvation Army’s Stan Hagen Centre for Families (250-386-8521, salvationarmycfs.com) and Burnside Gorge Community Association (250-388-5251, burnsidegorge.ca) are just some of the entry points for accessing hampers and supplies. These assistance groups are free to join, and receive resources from other organizations, community donors and grocery stores often looking for families to support during the holidays. Many of these organizations also have connections to programs like coat drives and Santa’s Anonymous, or sponsor free family events.

While deadlines for most Christmas hamper requests are the first week of December, some of the above organizations will offer hamper assistance on an emergency, last minute basis. Here are a few more options:

  • The Mustard Seed Food Bank (625 Queens) allows people to take a hamper home once a month (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, 9am-2pm), which varies in size depending on the number of people in the family. While the hampers are free, identification is needed for both the collector and for dependents. Clothes can be accessed at the Mustard Seed’s Clothing Bank Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm (closed Dec. 24 to Jan. 2), and “Home Start” kits are available for those who have just moved into new living situations.
  • St. Vincent de Paul (828 View) offers hampers once every 30 days based on family size, as well as hampers for those who do not have cooking facilities. Identification is needed for all family members. Open Monday to Friday, 8:30am-noon and 1-4:15pm.
  • St. John the Divine Emergency Food Service (1611 Quadra) provides hampers once a month for all in need, no identification required. Open Tuesday and Friday, 10am-noon.

Santa’s tip: Whether food or clothing, charitable drop offs can be made directly to a number of shelters and groups around town that deliver goods directly to clientele, like these Victoria Cool Aid Society organizations: Rock Bay Landing (535 Ellice, 250-383-1951), Sandy Merriman House for women (809 Burdett, 250-480-1408), Cool Aid administration (102-749 Pandora, 250-414-4781).

Wish: gifts for the kids

Victoria’s been the hub of Santa’s real workshop for the last 35 years, thanks to the C-FAX Santas Anonymous Society and the more than 300 volunteers who work quietly through the season to make sure over 1,200 families are surprised with generous holiday miracles.

The program is also responsible for those mysterious trees that pop up in malls around the city, decorated with coloured paper bears that tell how Dylan wants a “Hot Wheels Mega Loop Mathem Track Set” and Sophie is wishing for a “Dream Dazzlers Fabulous Dress Up Trunk.”

“All of these organizations have one purpose in mind, and that’s to make sure that every family receives help,” says Christine Hewitt, executive director of Santas Anonymous.

Anyone needing help can sign up with an application found on the group’s website (cfaxsantas.com), and wishes are granted through one of the six amalgamated groups under the new 2012 umbrella of the “Christmas Giving Program.” The program is based on the honour system and does not require financial proof of need. Requests must be made directly from the individual however; no well-meaning friends can nominate a family. But while the sign-up deadline passed on Dec. 3, Hewitt says the group works hard to accommodate everyone, even last-minute requests, and predicts she will be working late into Christmas Eve.

“Everything in the process is anonymous, because some children won’t know their parents signed up for this — it is Santa after all,” Hewitt says. “So this really holds the true spirit of giving and receiving, and it preserves dignity for all.”

Wishes and fake names are coded in the “workshop,” then transcribed on bears coloured by schoolchildren around Victoria and sent out to trees in Hillside, Mayfair, Uptown and Westshore malls. Donors select a bear and return the presents to the organization (usually a $60 value), which are then wrapped and either picked up by families on Dec. 19 and 20, or delivered to families on Dec. 21.

But while the group aims to provide all children under 17 with at least two gifts, they also send home with each family two bags of non-perishable goods, one bag of perishable goods and a grocery store gift card for the protein of the family’s choice.

“It’s not required that people be in complex poverty to still need help,” says d’Archangelo. “Of course, there is always more need than resources, but that’s why we are all here.”

Santa’s tip: If $60 sounds steep for your budget this year, donate to the “Homeless Partners Christmas Wish List” program, where the community and Victoria Cool Aid Society work hand-in-hand to give donated gifts to those in shelters this year. Gifts due Dec. 22. See the wishes at homelesspartners.com. M

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