Get in the spirit of giving with Christmas hamper program 

Whistler Food Bank also seeks donations during holiday season

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The stresses of the Christmas season can be overwhelming for anyone.

But for financially restricted families, the pressures of the holiday season can be virtually unbearable, with seemingly nowhere to turn for help.

Fortunately, there are dedicated groups like the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) and the Howe Sound Women's Centre in Squamish lending a helping hand to families in need in the Sea to Sky.

Both organizations run a similar Christmas hamper program for families that may not be able to afford gifts for their children. Individuals, groups or businesses can sponsor a family in need either through cash donations that will go towards specific hamper items, or by actually purchasing the gifts and assembling the hamper themselves. The Whistler program is open to all families in need, while the Squamish service is available to single mothers who've used any of the Women's Centre's services in the past.

"Families often have the best of intentions and hope that everything can work out for the holiday season, but sometimes things happen unexpectedly this month and families find they're in a really stressful time for the holidays," said WCSS's Jackie Dickinson, who's coordinating the Santa's Helpers Program. "We really want to keep our doors open, and the program open as much as possible, so people can find us."

Families provide certain information, like their children's age, gender, clothing sizes and gift preferences in order to be matched with anonymous donors. All inquiries are confidential and no personal information is exchanged throughout the process. Twenty-six families used the program in Whistler last year.

Hampers are also assembled by staff for families without donor matches, but providing a customized gift basket adds a personalized touch to the experience, said Deanna Enders, coordinator of Pearl's Place Transition Home, operated by the Howe Sound Women's Centre Society.

"It makes a huge difference," she said. "When most of the women come in and see the gifts there for them and their families, they have a tendency to get very emotional at the spirit of giving at this time of year towards people they don't even know."

Single mothers who've benefited from the program in the past often become donors in subsequent years, Enders added. In Whistler, a group of new mothers decided to raise money to sponsor a family in need because of the generosity the community had shown to them after their children were born, Dickinson said.

"When people know that their Christmas is going to be joyous and celebratory with food on their table and some necessary items for their kids, our staff gets to see the receiving end and we have families that come to us and say that this (program) has changed their whole year," she said.

WCSS is also organizing a Silent Santa initiative on Friday, Dec. 13 for the first time at the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation Social Service Centre. Running from 3 to 6 p.m., it allows for families and children with special needs to visit and get a picture with Santa himself in a calm, quiet environment.

The Whistler Food Bank, run by WCSS, is also seeking donations in the form of cash or non-perishable food items throughout the holiday season. A list of much needed food items can be found online at www.wcss.org.

While underemployment is still listed as the No. 1 reason for visiting the food bank by users, coordinator Sara Jennings said unaffordable housing is a major contributing factor.

"We've done really well with middle-income housing through the Whistler Housing Authority but we've still got people on the lower end that can't afford the Whistler Housing Authority (units)," she said. "If everybody at the Food Bank had affordable housing, I'm sure that our numbers would be cut drastically."

To get involved with the WCSS Christmas hamper or Silent Santa initiative, contact Dickinson at Jackie@mywcss.org or call 604-932-0113. Donors should drop off hampers at the WCSS Spring Creek office by Monday, Dec. 16.

For the Squamish hamper program, call 604-892-5748 to participate.

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