It all started 13 years ago in Edmonton; four compassionate friends and one act of empathy.
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.
“They all disappeared overnight, and Everybody Deserves a Smile was born,” said Stefan. “We had no intention of it ever being more than just being in that moment. But it has grown ever since.”
Stefan brought her idea with her to the Comox Valley when she moved here, and subsequently, Everybody Deserves a Smile has blossomed into one of the biggest grassroots philanthropy movements for youngsters anywhere on Vancouver Island.
|Students putting the packages together for the 2016 EDAS campaign. (Record file photo)|
Every year at this time, Stefan gets children from throughout School District 71 to participate in the EDAS campaign. This is the ninth year for the campaign in the Comox Valley, and it’s shaping up to be the biggest one yet.
“We have 16 schools participating this year,” said Stefan. “We had 14 schools last year, up from seven schools the year before.”
The new schools this year include Heritage Christian School and Lake Trail Middle School.
The goal in 2016 was to make 800 “care packages” for the needy in the Comox Valley. They ended up with more than 1,000.
Stefan said she is at a point now where she’s leery of any more growth.
“Last year we had 1,045 [bags] from the Comox Valley, and I don’t see us ever wanting to go beyond that. It’s really important to make sure we aren’t taking from other projects. There are so many incredible projects going at Christmastime.
“But in terms of school participation, I think we have 19, or 21 schools in the district and if we can get them all participating, that would be phenomenal. I would love to have all our schools on board.”
She said there will be “thousands” of students involved this year.
The packaging days this year are Dec. 14-15. The children themselves are also involved in the delivering of the packages.
|Students from the EDAS project deliver care packages to residents of Maple Pool Campground last year at Christmastime. (Photo supplied)|
All that’s still needed are items for packaging. Stefan said new woolen socks, toques, mitts and scarves are in especially high demand (XL for men; M for women).
Financial donations are also accepted.
The main drop box is at Puntledge Elementary, with all other participating schools also hosting drop boxes. There are also community drop boxes at the school board office, the Lewis Centre, Re-Max and the Courtenay Library.
For the fifth straight year, the Comox Valley Dental Study Group and Oral-B will supply virtually all the dental care supplies needed for the care packages.
“I have a volunteer, Monica, who just made two huge shipments to us again this year, so basically we have all our toothbrushes and toothpaste already,” said Stefan. “My Cumberland Rotary Club has also already made hundreds of scarves for the project, so a huge shout-out to them as well.”
A bit of history
For the first five years of the Comox Valley EDAS incarnation, the program was run outside the school system, as a community project.
Then, in 2012, SD 71 got involved.
“In ‘Year 9’ of the Comox Valley project, that’s when it ribboned through the school district, with help from Sherri Elwood, the superintendent at the time, and Kevin Reimer (École Puntledge principal at the time),” said Stefan.
The EDAS project has become much more than a Christmas project. Its lesson in human compassion has piqued the interest of the local school district to such a degree that philanthropy has become part of the curriculum in many local schools.
“Some of our schools are really getting involved in a deeper fashion,” said Stefan. “Arden School is opening up a little more, and taking on some bigger leadership pieces. And Puntledge Park Elementary has started a ‘Speakers Series.’ Our Grade 7s lead the project as a host school, and we invite community members to speak on different topics, from homelessness, to addiction, to project management and marketing.”
Stefan said the most gratifying aspect of the project is seeing how it has changed the attitudes of young members of the community.
“We have seen how the kids’ perspectives have shifted – a lot more conversation and dialogue,” she said. “Where families used to label people living on the street, there’s a lot more compassion. Different vocabulary is being used.
“Kids are really beginning to understand that they can make a difference – that they can step up, own their talents and gifts, and share them with the community, be that in the school setting, or into the greater community. And it’s not only understanding that they have the ability – they are also starting to understand that they have a responsibility.”