It seems like an impossible task.
It’s Tuesday morning, and half of the gymnasium floor at New Life Assembly in Petrolia is covered with boxes, tops wide open waiting for food. Dawn MacLaren and Elequen General – visiting her grandmother from Toronto for Christmas and conscripted to help with Christmas For Everyone – peer into the boxes. They pull out a can, realizing the person who is receiving the box has a food allergy and this particular item should not be in that box. They place it on a nearby banquet table already groaning with the weight of cans of every shape, colour and size and return to work.
With 400 boxes lining the floor, there is a lot of work ahead.
Sandra Hartman, the coordinator of Christmas For Everyone for the past 15 years, says it is only one item of the many items to be checked as they prepare Christmas boxes for people across Petrolia and Central Lambton.
Hartman starts thinking about Christmas in January. The hard work begins in the fall as she starts collecting toys for the children. That, she says, is more difficult than ever.
“The hardest part is the toy aspect,” she says as others work around her. “Because the toys for older kids are all technology based, it is a lot more difficult to find anything for the older kids,” she says. Usually, children under 10 receive toys and teens end up with gift cards.
On Tuesday morning, the toys haven’t even been brought in to the gym. On Tuesday, the task is making sure the Christmas boxes are filled with enough food for a Christmas meal and a little bit more. And, Hartman says, they try their best to make sure any special needs – like food allergies – are met taking out jars of peanut butter or gluten when needed.
Aside from making sure the boxes and toys are just right, Hartman has to make sure everything is ready to go by Thursday. And occasionally, she thinks about the weather and how it will affect the delivery of the boxes by volunteer firefighters.
It can be overwhelming, Hartman admits. Each year she looks around for a moment and wonders how it will ever be done in time. But with dozens of volunteers and local firefighters to help out – the task does get done.
And she remembers why she is doing it. This year, 400 families are counting on the boxes – single people, moms with small children and teenagers, and increasingly seniors who just can’t make their pension last until the end of the month let alone have money for special food at Christmas.
“The cost of every day living is going up but incomes are not,” says Hartman. “Paying utilities is a huge issue… the cost of hydro is a huge issue.”
Hartman says one recent Monday – the day the food bank is open in Petrolia – 32 families came looking for help. Six needed food and help paying the hydro bill.
It can all be discouraging. That’s why Hartman likes to help deliver the boxes. “It is the coolest thing in the world,” she says with a huge smile spreading across her face. “I’ve seen people crying; people say ‘Can I hug you?’” she says. One year, a little boy was filled with excitement after hearing the firefighters sound the sirens then exclaiming, “I’m getting a fire truck!
“There is never despair, there are always smiles and gratitude and a lot of emotion. It touches you and it makes it all worth it…it is the best feeling in the world and you remember this is why you do it.”