CFS Hamilton staff members Chantelle Pavao and Christine Wong help wrap and organize Christmas gifts for this year’s Miracles on Main Street drive. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Fearnside

Catholic Family Services making sure everyone is involved at Christmas

By 
  • December 18, 2015

Christmas is a celebration of the family, which is why Catholic Family Services offices across the country are working hard to ensure that it is a merry season for everyone.

December can be an especially difficult time for families living in poverty, dealing with abuse or struggling with family relationships. And so CFS social workers,
counsellors and staff are working tirelessly this month to make sure that they see every one of their clients before Christmas.

“It is a crazy time of year,” said Jennifer Fearnside, who works in fund development and communications at CFS Hamilton. “We know that it takes a lot of work but we know it is so rewarding to be able to do this for our clients.”

As well as making sure that all their clients have access to the social services they need, the Hamilton office runs a Miracles on Main Street program every year for its most vulnerable families.

Fearnside, who runs the program every year, works with the staff counsellors to organize a Christmas gift drive for clients who are most in need. The clients’ wish lists are then matched up with community sponsors who will shop and wrap the gifts.

“Usually, it’s a tremendous support that (community sponsors) give. It’s not just the wish list. It’s always above and beyond that,” said Fearnside. “When our sponsors come in with these beautifully wrapped presents and they hand it to us and they say thank you. They’re appreciative of having the opportunity to help someone and they just didn’t know exactly how to do it.”

The Miracle on Main Street project will be distributing gifts to about 75 children and 116 adults in the Hamilton area this year.

In Calgary, the Catholic Family Service office is running a similar project called the Santa’s Sleigh Project. Jessica Williams, managing director of stakeholder relations, runs the program to bring Christmas gifts for young women that attend school at the Louise Dean Centre.

The Louise Dean Centre is a public high school program exclusively designed for current and expectant teenage mothers. The centre also provides counselling, health care services and an on-site daycare centre to support about 400 young women as they pursue their high school diploma.

“What we find is that when they get the gifts, it’s incredibly motivating for them,” said Williams. “Young women encounter so much stigma about being a teen parent that when they’re selected and have that sense that someone in the community believes enough in what they’re doing that they put together an entire sleigh of gifts for them, that’s very affirming and it’s a big boost for them.”

About 70 of the centre’s neediest young mothers will be receiving gifts from local sponsors this year. Most of the gifts are modest requests for household items, like diapers, cleaning products and children’s clothing. But, Williams said the sponsors also like to include fun things for them, like children’s toys.

It is important for all CFS offices that their clients know there is a community that is behind them during this time of the year. Because expectations are so high during the Christmas season, it heightens the pressures of reality. “People feel that they have to meet certain expectations and if they are financially struggling or if they are mentally struggling, it can really acerbate that,” said Peter Mutch, executive director of CFS Charlottetown. The major focus for many CFS offices during Christmas is providing counselling services to all clients. Staff counsellors and social workers are working to coach clients through this tough time by identifying where they are vulnerable and helping them avoid those risks.

Denis Costello, executive director of CFS Toronto, said it also helps clients to be reminded of the true context of the Christmas story. “All of the advertising is a myth... Christmas is about a refugee family on the run at risk for the child. It’s very different from what you see advertised,” said Costello. “I think that gives people a bit of hope and it helps them see Christmas in a different context. It doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t still there but you’ve got something you can do about it and there is hope.”

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