Volunteers serve Christmas dinner at Toronto’s Good Shepherd Ministries Photo by Michael Swan.

Spirit of giving overcomes commercialization of Christmas

By 
  • December 21, 2015

TORONTO - To curb the commercialization of Christmas, Alice Chan has made a tradition of volunteering with her two sons over the Christmas holidays.

“It is important for them to see that there are people around them who are disadvantaged,” said Chan. “I want them to appreciate what they have and know that they should be giving back.”

That’s why for the past three years Chan and her two sons, Shane and Kael, 12 and nine respectfully, have volunteered at the St. Felix Centre — a community centre in downtown Toronto serving a wide range of people experiencing poverty, violence, abuse and mental illness — during the holiday season.

“That’s when you really need it,” she said. “A lot of people are really in need, especially at Christmas time.”

She isn’t alone in thinking this way. According to a recent poll conducted by Ipsos Reid, a Canadian market research company, 88 per cent of Canadians feel that “we need to spend more time at Christmas focusing on those who need help,” while 89 per cent find the season has become too commercial.

“It is overly commercialized,” said Chan. “That defeats what Christmas is all about.”

Chan doesn’t want her sons focusing on the special programming on television, presents under a decorated tree or a festive meal this time of year. Instead, in the spirit of Advent she wants her sons to focus on giving back, something many of the clients at the St. Felix Centre are simply unable to do.

“With the weather getting colder and the holidays coming up there is just more people who seem to be in need,” she said. “With people knowing that it is a time for family and knowing that they don’t have that or somewhere to go it is a little bit depressing for them. So with us at least there is somewhere where they can go and get comfort.”

A few kilometres to the east at the Good Shepherd Ministries on Queen Street East, the Christmas season brings out the best in many who want to lend a hand. Br. David Lynch, executive director of the east-end shelter, said the Good Shepherd can see a glut of volunteers over the holidays.

Lynch just has to look at the numbers. The Good Shepherd can serve only 168 at a time in its dining room, and that fixed number means there are only so many volunteers the Good Shepherd can use.

“Sometimes if we are not careful we would have more volunteers than clients in the dining room,” said Lynch. “We are often over subscribed for both Christmas Day and Boxing Day when we serve our Christmas festive meals. Once the dining room numbers are what we need, then we divert them to maybe making beds or folding laundry or sorting food in the basement.”

As the economy dipped during the 2000s, Lynch said an increasing number of families shifted from donating goods to volunteering as a family unit.

“That has increased over the past five years,” he said. “Families want to contribute, they want to give back and they want to pay it forward. The way to do that is by volunteering because they don’t have the means available to them to make donations. There definitely has been an increase.”

The Good Shepherd’s counterpart in Hamilton, the Good Shepherd Centre, is also seeing a decline in donations.

“They’re not as large this year but they are still coming in steady,” said Cathy Wellwood, chief development officer. “People are very intuitive to the joy of giving and they love to help out people who are in need.”

There is an increasing number of volunteers. Since Wellwood signed on with the Good Shepherd Centre slightly more than a decade ago the volunteer pool has grown from 1,000 to more than 5,000.

“They’ve come out of the woodwork,” she said. “We have a thousand come out at an event that we do before Christmas where we provide a dinner and a place we call the Wonderland Christmas for kids.”

The cause for this charitable cultural shift, said Wellwood, is the prevalence of poverty in the average person’s life.

“There are more hardships in their backyards,” she said. “They are seeing people that they know and have for a long time, or it has hit their families.”

Ensuring her sons remember that message for many Christmases to come, Chan has made a family tradition out of volunteering during the holidays.

“You see the homeless on the streets but you don’t really get to know them, you just see them,” she said. “It could happen to anyone so I want them to know that you should always treat people with respect and courtesy. That is especially true at Christmas.”

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