On Thursday, Dec. 9, École Puntledge Park students spent the day putting together what will ultimately become 1,270 gifts of love for those in need.
The 2021 Everybody Deserves A Smile campaign is into the packaging stage, with deliveries to 24 social agencies set to take place throughout the next 10 days.
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.”
Has it ever.
The project, now in its 14th year in the Comox Valley, has tripled in participation size in the past half-dozen years. Twenty-one schools participated this year. In 2015, seven schools participated.
“We’ve never had this many schools participate, and we’ve never had this many classes,” said Stefan. “We have probably about 80 classes participating this year, K-12, which is extraordinary. To have that incredible participation and leadership within each school, at a time when everyone has their own (issues) with the pandemic and what have you, is really heartwarming.”
Participating classes spend time making artistic bags for each recipient, as well as simple messages of encouragement. But it goes far beyond that. The classes are taught about homelessness and empathy as part of the curriculum.
|Every envelope contained one of these cards of hope, explaining the program to recipients. Photo by Terry Farrell|
“It’s all about rehumanizing homelessness,” said Stefan. “What does it mean to be homeless, or struggling with poverty? We teach compassion education, like understanding about empathy, and understanding people’s feelings when they are struggling, as well as taking action and really doing something to help somebody’s life.
“They are also learning lessons on core competency, so life skills, working together as a community to build something and make a difference. It’s a combination of all those things, and becoming an advocate, as well as empowering leadership. Every school is basically given resources that we have been able to develop over time and pull into their classrooms at the level they can handle, and as deep as they want to go.”
By the time packaging day comes, Stefan says it’s clear the students have learned valuable lessons.
“From art and creativity, to thinking that this is not just a bag, or an envelope – it’s a person on the other end who is going through a hard time, and we can help them have a better day and a better Christmas, and bring them some joy,” said Stefan.
Helen Austin was even on hand – virtually – to play live for the students throughout the packaging work parties, all day Thursday, and Friday morning.
The target number each year is set a couple of months in advance.
“My EDAS adult team connects with (the various agencies) in October, to see the need,” said Stefan. “Every shelter is specifically packaged to, based on how many men, how many women, how many non-binary they have. So we are really specific on how many we are handing out, and that’s how we get our number every year.”
Of those 1,270 for this year, a total of 878 will be delivered to people in the Comox Valley, with the remaining packages going to Victoria and East Hastings.
In past years, the EDAS adult team has been able to share the delivery experience with the EDAS student team. Due to COVID-19, that isn’t possible this year. Stefan said it was a struggle to make that decision, but it was done with the health of the children in mind.
“We called it probably about a month ago,” she said. “It was hard to make that call, because it is part of the EDAS experience. Our kids get so much out of it, and it really brings it to a different level when you can be a part of that delivery, but we just couldn’t take that risk to expose the children to (COVID). Even as an adult team, we won’t actually be entering the shelters – it’s just a drop-off.”
Stefan also acknowledged the support from the community at large.
“We don’t do this without our businesses, our Rotary groups, our church groups, everybody,” she said.