Traditionally a season for giving and time spent with family, the holidays can also be a time of stress and uncertainty for some.
Fortunately, there are many in Muskoka who dedicate themselves to helping ease the burden during the challenging Christmas season.
One such group are the organizers of the Muskoka Shoebox Project, who help brighten the holiday season for women living in poverty or going through transition.
According to Penny Burns, one of the project’s organizers, the need is much greater than they originally anticipated, but so is the desire to help.
“The first year we went into it blind and really didn’t know what the need was in Muskoka, or what the response would be,” said Burns, who founded the Muskoka Shoebox Program in 2015, along with Joanne Buie and Barb Baldwin. “Our initial thoughts were to collect 50 boxes. As we started looking into the needs in Muskoka, we realized we were naïve. Our first year we collected and distributed 352 boxes and it wasn’t enough.”
The Shoebox Project for Women was founded in 2011 by four sister-in-laws in Toronto, looking for a hands-on way to give back to their community.
“Women living in poverty or transition need to make sacrifices in order to provide for their families, often coming at the expense of their own self care or personal comfort,” says Burns. “Our aim through the Muskoka Shoebox Project is to put smiles on the face of someone, a woman in our community, who may be needing a reason to smile.”
The premise is simple, says Burns, members of the community are asked to fill a shoebox with new, small luxuries items to a value of approximately $50.
“As we say, something sparkly, something chocolate and something warm,” says Burns. “You wrap the shoebox, and drop it off to specified locations. We then inspect, touch up and deliver these boxes to accredited agencies in Muskoka in time for the holidays.”
The cutoff for this year is Dec. 1, and shoeboxes can be dropped off at many Muskoka locations. You can find out more on their facebook page.
After their initial success in gathering shoeboxes the first year, the organizers have continue to grow contributions collecting 659 in 2016. This year they’re shooting for 700.
“We now have knitting groups knitting for us, we have businesses using the Muskoka Shoebox Project as their company Christmas drive, groups of friends having shoebox parties – the concept and aim have resonated,” says Burns. “We have businesses that have agreed to be drop off locations, we have local retailers helping out with merchandise, local shoe stores saving shoe boxes and printers supporting us.”
Due to privacy rules, the organizers don’t get the chance to actually meet the recipients, but they do hear the stories, says Burns.
“One young man remarked how he couldn’t remember when he’d last given his mother a Christmas present and gave the box to her,” says Burns. “Another agency tells us that they make the boxes available to children to pick one for their mom. This is where the decorating comes in – the little ones make their decisions based solely on the wrapping, the bows and glitter.”
Whether it’s a book club, a curling team or a primary school class, Burns says they’ve been floored with the generosity of Muskokans.
“What excites and humbles us the most is that this effort is done by Muskokans for Muskokans,” she says. “Sometimes we only have to look in our own backyard to see someone who is in need.”