With the last of the 1,298 Christmas parcels of hope delivered, Everybody Deserves a Smile founder Chantal Stefan could finally take a well-deserved break.
The 2021 EDAS campaign delivered 898 packages to local shelters and agencies, as well as an additional 400 packages to shelters in Victoria and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The EDAS campaign started as an act of empathy 18 years ago, in Edmonton, Alta.
École Puntledge Park Elementary School teacher Chantal Stefan was living in the Alberta capital at the time. She and three friends wanted to make a difference, for those in need at Christmastime.
The four of them baked up some sugar cookies, wrote notes on little pieces of construction paper, added a pair of socks and put all the contents into little Christmas bags. They made 88 bags, went down the back alleys of downtown Edmonton, right before Christmas, and hung the bags where people would see them and pick them up.
The next morning, the bags were all gone, and as Stefan put it, “… Everybody Deserves a Smile was born. We had no intention of it ever being more than just being in that moment. But it has grown ever since.”
Now in its 14th year in the Comox Valley, the campaign has evolved into part of the school district’s curriculum.
In addition to making the packages, special speaking engagements are assigned for every class, to give students an in-depth understanding of the importance of empathy towards others.
In most years, the student teams would also take part in the delivery process, but due to COVID, Stefan used only her adult teams this year.
“We did meet them all (students) on Monday, after our local deliveries, so we were able to show the kids what it looked like – we documented it all,” said Stefan. “So that was a nice component. And then on (Jan. 14), our first meeting (of the new year) we will show them the rest of the deliveries. Experiencing that is priceless, and it really helps our youth ‘get it’ at a level like this. To not have that aspect of it, that experience (of delivering) is hard, but I will say this: Our Vancouver handout this year was one of the nicest experiences I’ve ever had.
“It was just a drop-off, but there was such gratitude from the workers… people’s gratitude was just extreme this year. I don’t know if it’s just because things are so bad, and some organizations can’t get (everything they need)… they all just expressed so much love.”
Not done yet
While the heavy lifting of the 2021 EDAS program has been completed, there are still some assemblies to come, including some speaking engagements planned for the new year, which Stefan is particularly proud of this year.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a stronger speaker series,” she said. “I think part of it is our students are more ‘ready to learn’ with the support we are getting during the program. So this year we brought in the Hedicans (John and Jennifer Hedican, whose son, Ryan, died of fentanyl poisoning in 2017). We brought in Chris Goble (Island Health substance use clinical co-ordinator for the Comox Valley) who talked about substance use and harm reduction, addiction and connection. From AVI (AIDS Vancouver Island), Christina has come in; Grant (Grant Shilling, Dawn to Dawn), has come in. Sam Franey, who was homeless himself, is coming in our first week back, and then the shelter we have in Victoria that we hand out to, Rock Bay Landing, some of their clients have offered to come in and share their stories. So we are ending our season with some personal stories of people living outside. I am hoping this really brings it all home.”
Stefan said after doing this for 14 years in the Comox Valley, there is one thing that is constant – this never gets old.
“I don’t think it could ever be possible, for this to get old for me,” she said. “Honestly, I think I am the biggest student in all of this. This project invited me into community leadership, and made me actively become an educator, and made me become more aware of what is happening to people out there on our streets. In that process, I have had to learn, and grow, and ask more of myself through it all. And every year, our students teach me probably just as much as I teach them. It’s different every year, so it can’t get old.”
Stefan said there is one message she tries to get through to everyone, every year.
“We have to care. I think we do a phenomenal job of that in the Comox Valley, and this is just another level. I keep thinking in this cold snap, if people could just realize how cold it is to be living outside, being cold, without food, what people go through to just live… that would no longer be happening.”