By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express
Holiday Helpers Canada, a Toronto based charity, is branching into Durham this Christmas to help spread holiday cheer.
Holiday Helpers is a Toronto-based charity that provides personalized Christmas packages to low-income families.
Sarah Rutka, who co-founded the group with her sister April, says it all began in 1996 after a family’s home was burned down mere days before Christmas.
“Twenty-two years ago we gave away our first tree,” says Rutka. “We were young back then, but my sister used to volunteer with the Salvation Army.”
Rutka says that everybody in the community rallied around the family after they lost their home and provided them with much of what they needed. However, one thing that the family really wanted was a Christmas tree so they could maintain some normalcy.
“We had enough money to buy a tree for the family, and we collected Christmas decorations, and that’s what we did for the family,” says Rutka.
According to Rutka, while the charity itself has been around since 1996, it wasn’t officially called “Holiday Helpers” until 2004 when they started the process to become a registered charity.
“We’ve been wanting to expand the charity for a while,” says Rutka. “It was always a long term goal of ours to expand across Ontario eventually.”
Rutka says that the charity has been in the GTA for 22 years, and they have occasionally helped families from Durham Region.
“We were looking into a couple of different communities to go into, and it just happened that in Durham we knew that there was a need,” she says. “But we also had an opportunity because we had some partners out there who stepped up and said they would want to help us, and offered us a space where we can host our wrapping weekend.”
Rutka says they had thought about moving to other parts of the province instead, singling out Hamilton, Barrie, and London, and says that they will eventually move there as well.
“I think eventually we’re there,” Rutka says. “But because we’re still a small charity we have a very lean staff, so we’ll take on one expansion a year.”
Rutka says that with their expansion into Durham, they will be working with two women’s shelters in the area. They are Denise House in Oshawa, and Herizon House in Ajax.
The two shelters have been referring families to Holiday Helpers, according to Rutka.
“We work with different charities that will refer families to us,” she explained. “We don’t work with the families face-to-face, so we rely on our charity partners who do work with the families, so both Denise House and Herizon House are referring their clients to us.”
Rutka says that the goal for Holiday Helpers this year is to help approximately 600 families, with about 40 or 45 being from Durham, and the rest from the GTA. She expects about 20 families from Oshawa to take part, but applications are still available.
“What I think sets us apart from other Christmas charities is when you sponsor a family through Holiday Helpers, you’re actually providing presents for a family,” Rutka explains. “So there’s a real family at the end of the sponsorship.”
Rutka says that unlike many other charities there is actually a mom or a dad at the other end with a wish list that is actually going to get those wrapped presents. She believes this gives the charity a more personal feel to it and sets them apart.
“It’s not just about Christmas toys, we make sure that the families get necessary items,” says Rutka. She explains that they will receive winter coats, boots, hats, mitts, sheets and towels, as well as other household items.
For Rutka, while there are a lot of memories that stick out to her, what keeps her going is receiving the thank you letters from families. She says that it’s really touching to see the letters, and points out that a lot of the families thought they were simply going to get a hamper or basket of gifts.
She says that a family who stuck out to her last year was a family who had come to Canada after fleeing from Nigeria.
She says that for this family, it was their first Christmas in Canada, and they were told it was going to be cold and that there’d be snow. However, they were unprepared for how cold it really was in December almost a year ago.
“[The father] was an educated man, but in Canada he could only make minimum wage,” she says. “He struggled to pay anything beyond rent and food. He just paid for the bare necessities.”
Due to their financial situation, the family was unable to buy winter clothes for themselves and their children. When they received their package from Holiday Helpers, they were relieved to find winter coats and other winter gear, as another winter storm was approaching.
“Just being able to do that for families, it keeps me going,” says Rutka.
For more information on Holiday Helpers Canada, to volunteer or to make a donation, visit holidayhelpers.org.