WELLINGTON COUNTY – Linda Bailey has wrapped gifts and made hand-written notes for thousands of families in Guelph and Wellington County in her nine years volunteering, along with her husband Cameron, with the Children’s Foundation of Guelph and Wellington’s Adopt-a-Family program.
Bailey looks over a toy that a child will get to unwrap on Christmas day, thanks to a donor “adopting” a family in need of some help to put gifts under the Christmas tree this year.
Near Bailey, is Jeanette Hisaki, a 13-year volunteer with Adopt-a-Family, preparing gift wrap to go to families.
And then there’s Mary Simpson, rooting around in a box packed with new, donated toys. She’s been volunteering for 14 years.
The elves, as senior development director Karyn Kirkwood calls them, were busy preparing packages on Nov. 23 for over 1,300 families referred so far this year, inside a 5,000 square-foot space donated by Guelph’s Wood Development Group.
Social services agencies, like the Community Resource Centre of North and Centre Wellington, Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington, and Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington County refer income-challenged families to the Adopt-a-Family program each year.
Around 20 per cent of referrals to the program come from county agencies, working out to upwards of 400 families each year.
“They know the positive impact it has on families, so they actively refer the families that they know really need it, that would not have Christmas otherwise,” Kirkwood said, adding, “I mean that quite sincerely.”
“Typically a parent will always put their kids first … it’s incredible, particularly people who are living in very low-income circumstances, find a way to move heaven and earth,” Kirkwood said.
But that means neglecting bills or going into debt and getting further behind.
“For our families, honestly there’s a lot of things they just need; it’s not even a question of wishing for big, expensive items, they need things like pajamas and winter coats,” Kirkwood said.
The program is asking donors to shop for both “needs” and “wishes” for families using a hybrid of gift cards to address needs and in-person shopping for the fun, tangible wishes, like toys.
The gift cards empower families to cover their needs—like groceries for a holiday meal or winter wear pajamas for children—by allowing them to do their own shopping.
“The beautiful thing is to get the family you’re matched with; you know what they’re wishing for and their favourite colour and all that. It is what makes the program really special—that personal connection to a family, to those kids—people love that,” Kirkwood said
The program is also accepting cash donations from those who don’t want to adopt an entire family or wish to make a smaller contribution.
The cash is used to purchase gift cards in bulk through a program providing a charity top-up and to purchase personalized gifts for families adopted by the program itself. So far this year, there are 92 families adopted internally.
“We definitely need more cash donations because we still have quite a long way to go,” Kirkwood said.
And the program is still “desperately” in need of additional donors.
The number of families referred this year is nearing last year’s total of 1,400 and a team of dedicated volunteers are working endlessly to whittle down the number of unmatched families.
Sketched on a dry-erase board, the number of outstanding families reads “89.” But Kirkwood said it’s an ever changing number.
As donors sign up, Kirkwood sees them on her “Santa database” and gets to work matching.
“It’s kind of like eHarmony for elves,” she quipped.
Donors are provided with their family’s information sheet with recommended stores and wish items.
“Then they shop for that family and bring it in to us and we get it all ready for the social worker who referred them and they come and pick it up and deliver it to the family,” Kirkwood explained of the process.
“We typically ask the donor to expect to spend about $200 per child split between the needs, gift cards, and the wishes,” she said.
The smallest family, with a single parent and child, would cost $325 for everything.
For much larger families, costs can shoot up to $2,000, making them more challenging to match. Often they fall to a group of employees banding together at a company to take on the larger bill.
Kirkwood said the program aims to have all donations in by Dec. 8 to give volunteers ample time to get everything prepared.
“It’s not a one-day job, it’s weeks and weeks,” Kirkwood remarked.
Despite the approaching deadline there are always referrals to the program afterward—what Kirkwood calls “emergency referrals.”
“We really do our very, very best to help them as much as we can right up until we stop at Christmas,” she said.
For more information and to adopt a family, visit: childrensfoundation.org/what-we-do/adopt-a-family.