Twelve years ago, Chantal Stefan and three friends came up with an idea, while living in Edmonton.
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 now lives in Cumberland, and teaches at École Puntledge Park Elementary School. When she moved to the Island, she brought the EDAS concept with her. The project is no longer active in its Alberta birthplace, but it has flourished in the Comox Valley.
“This is the eighth year for the program here,” said Stefan. “We have 10 schools working with us this year, all collecting donations and making cookies and painting bags and making cards. I can’t get over how big it has become.”
This year’s partnering schools are Queneesh Elementary, Brooklyn Elementary, Highland Secondary, G.P. Vanier Secondary, Mark Isfeld Secondary, Cumberland Community School, École Robb Road, Huband Park Elementary, Royston Elementary and Glacier View Secondary Centre.
Toques, mittens, scarves, wool socks, toothbrushes and toothpaste will be accepted at drop-off locations, including: École Puntledge Park, Zocalo Café and Gallery, RE/MAX, Courtenay, Lewis Centre, Comox Community Centre and Seeds Food Market in Cumberland.
The items most in need are wool socks, toques and mitts or gloves, in extra large or large sizes for men and medium sizes for women. Deadline to drop off donations is Dec. 7. Cash donations are accepted, and cheques can be made payable to EDAS.
Once the donations are collected, there will be packaging workshops on Dec. 10 and 11 at École Puntledge, in what has turned out to be a two-day celebration of giving, complete with entertainment, including Helen Austin and the Brodie Dawson/Christy Vanden duo She Could Be Trouble.
This season, Everybody Deserves a Smile Comox Valley sees its largest campaign yet.
“We are making 800 care packages this year,” said Stefan, who added that total will cover more than the local needs. “With the Comox Valley, because our giving is so great in the three communities, we help other communities. This same project runs in Campbell River, Port Alberni and Nanaimo. So what we do with the Comox Valley bags, is we hand them out to everyone who needs one here — that accounts for about 355 bags. Then we go to (the other communities) and drop off care packages there as well.”
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.
“We now are using a locally developed curriculum focused on hearts and minds,” said School District 71 superintendent Sherry Elwood. “It weaves the work of the ‘I Can project’ philosophy with a connection to an international movement called Design for Change. Our school district represents Canada in this work that supports children across the world.”
École Puntledge Park, where Stefan teaches, is the host school, and the project has become more than a one-week affair.
“We have kindergarten to Grade 12 students running this project,” said Stefan.
“We have displays going up all over the Comox Valley. We have curriculum that we have built now, so it’s going into different schools, in different ways.
“It’s so deep. The kids are learning about homelessness and poverty and active citizenship. They are really becoming change-makers, and they are so good at it. These kids are so clear already. They are getting it. To be able to provide this opportunity for them locally, has been really exciting.”
The EDAS project’s lesson in philanthropy has piqued the interest of the local school district to such a degree that it has become part of the curriculum.
The project has evolved to include field trips for some of the students.
This year, a group of Grade 6 and 7 students has been selected to take a road trip to Nanaimo for a tour of the 7-10 Club soup kitchen and a tour of a Victoria shelter, for some firsthand experience.
“We did a call of interest at Puntledge this year for the EDAS Club and we had 40 students show up,” said Stefan.
“Our plan was only to take 16, so I had to get them to fill applications, because there were too many students for what I could accommodate.”
The applications included a brief essay on why each student felt they deserved to be on the “team.” Stefan said the response was overwhelming.
“Twenty-five of them came back with these unbelievable responses… from essay writing, to collages, it was just incredible. So we had to keep them all. They are so excited to be part of this.”
Other schools have adopted philanthropy lessons as well.
Isfeld, Vanier and Cumberland Community School are piloting a new program called Inspire Change — a 10-week program on philanthropy.
As for the original foursome, Stefan said that while the program is no longer active in Edmonton, one of the “founders” does lend a helping hand to the Comox Valley project.
“One of the originals is now in Saskatchewan and she is mailing me all the little bottles of soaps and shampoos that she has been collecting from hotels.”
Stefan said the benefits of EDAS are not limited to those receiving the care packages.
“I’ve always said EDAS has two-fold (purpose). It’s absolutely important for people living on the streets to feel love, whenever they can. But it’s as important for those helping out. It helps us be reminded of what’s truly important in this world.
“There are so many people to thank, but really, it’s everybody in the entire community. This doesn’t happen unless the entire community takes it to heart. Thank you to all our partners.”