When a skid of hair dryers and flat irons were delivered care of ‘Holiday Heroes at St. Andrew’s College,’ program coordinator Melissa Tackaberry couldn’t conceal her excitement.
The unexpected donation resulted from grade 11 student Christopher Sgro asking his summer employer, Conair International, if they would make a donation to SAC’s annual charity drive.
“I was able to start to pack them up to send them out immediately,” says Ms. Tackaberry, thrilled to make last-minute additions to gifts slated for delivery to the Holiday Hero depot in Newmarket.
St. Andrew’s sponsored 218 families this year through its annual partnership with the York Region Children’s Aid Society (CAS). Now in its ninth year, SAC’s cumulative total is 1,500 families helped and over $1 million donated.
“One thing I’m finding this year is that students are doing a better job of meeting families’ needs,” says Melissa who has coordinated the program since its inception, back when each student was asked to buy for another boy. Today, the aim is to give each child four or five gifts and adults two or three. Melissa often balances out bags that are lacking by adding in items such as books, gift cards, and toys from inventory purchased with cash donations.
“It’s easy for our kids to forget how lucky they are because of the family they were born into,” says Melissa, explaining why she thinks it is so important for our students to participate. “The hope is that the idea of giving back extends beyond their time at SAC and becomes a lifelong pattern.” She has set this example with her own children, Jessica and Alex Auger ’14, who assisted her for years with the shopping, toting, and wrapping of gifts for Holiday Heroes.
The process has become ingrained in the School’s culture. It is upheld by a deep commitment to giving by students, families, faculty, and staff, and supported by Melissa’s dedication to running the program well. She shops year round for sales to make the dollars stretch further, often alerted to sales by others, and is ably assisted by many, especially teachers Amanda Thorne and Fraser Cowell. She keeps careful records of inventory to track the “always requested items” such as sheets, pots and pans, dishes, and diapers. And in June, the renovated space beneath the Chapel became SAC’s Holiday Heroes headquarters, with newly installed floor-to-ceiling shelving for orderly storage.
Each fall the CAS provides SAC with a book of families to sponsor, which includes first names, ages, and sizes to help donors individualize purchases. In October, a load of warm weather clothing that this year included 183 winter coats and 167 pairs of boots, mostly for children, were delivered for early distribution. Each Advisory group picks a family to support, and faculty and staff are also provided with names if requested.
The generosity Andreans show for this charity is amazing. Students lugging large shopping bags have been overheard discussing what they bought for “their family,” while boarding students enthusiastically shop as a group at the mall. Some faculty and staff ask Melissa what is needed; others choose to donate cash or gift cards, often anonymously. This year, the janitorial staff pooled their money and made a group donation, and the Parents Guild chose a large family with five children to sponsor. All parent’s gifts are wrapped by faculty and staff and are then distributed by the CAS to needy families in York Region from Vaughan to Georgina in time for Christmas.
Though Melissa says she has never personally met any of those we help, she has read their profiles, describing many as heartbreaking: people who have lost their jobs, suffer from poor health, or are down on their luck. She is particularly touched by teenagers who have aged out of CAS and live independently. Though they attend high school, they are excited to receive housewares. The cards and letters of thanks SAC receives in January are put into a book and kept at SAC Reception for all to read.
“We are not changing anyone’s life permanently,” acknowledges Melissa, “but we are giving them a bit of happiness for one day. And that means a lot.”
Story by Cindy Veitch