This blog post was provided by Lesley Hendry, Executive Director of The Shoebox Project for Women.
The holiday season was approaching in 2011, when four sisters-in-law; Jessica, Caroline, Katy and Vanessa Mulroney, were seeking a way to give back to their community. They noticed that while there were many ways to donate toys and holiday gifts to children living in local shelters, there were no such gift drives for their mothers. They thought about how stressful and lonely the holidays must be for many of these moms, and wanted to make the season just a little brighter for these women.
The sisters sent around an email, calling upon their friends, family and acquaintances to make gifts for the 156 women living at the Red Door Shelter in Toronto. They asked for shoeboxes filled with “little luxuries” like high quality beauty products, warm hats and mitts, and special treats that a woman living in poverty might not otherwise have access to. They nearly tripled their goal, loading up a cargo truck with 400 shoeboxes and delivering them to four local women’s shelters in time for the holidays. The feedback from both the shelters and the participants was so overwhelming that The Shoebox Project was officially born.
Since that initial holiday season, the initiative has been growing at breakneck speed. The Shoebox Project is now a trusted national charity, with 66 local chapters delivering shoeboxes to women impacted by homelessness across North America. The Shoebox Project has delivered a total of 130,000 beautifully-decorated and thoughtfully-curated gifts, valued at about 6.5 million dollars. Canadians had been searching for a way to make meaningful connections with members of their community, especially those less fortunate. Once we provided an easy, hands-on opportunity to share kindness and love, there was no stopping the momentum. Empathy, warmth and acceptance began to spread across our country, and it shows no signs of stopping.
The Shoebox Project for Shelters to The Shoebox Project for Women
When The Shoebox Project began in 2011, our focus was on uplifting the spirits of women living in shelters, and letting them know that they are loved and supported by their community. Due to the overwhelming support across Canada however, we have been able to expand our reach beyond shelters and provide gifts of joy to women and girls accessing a wide range of community agencies. For example, we now provide shoeboxes to women accessing mental health and addiction programs, transitional and supportive housing facilities, newcomer and refugee support groups, and drop-in centres for Indigenous women.
The fact is that not all women impacted by homelessness are living in shelters. Homelessness is very often hidden. A woman may be temporarily staying with friends or family or living in a household where she is subject to family violence. Many women technically have a home, but are at risk of eviction, or living in illegal, overcrowded, or unsafe buildings. Often a woman has very few choices when looking to access safe, appropriate, and affordable housing, especially if she has children and requires more than one bedroom.
Despite the vastly different challenges, backgrounds, and circumstances of the women accessing these vital social services across Canada, we have learned that a sense of isolation and low self-worth is widespread, especially during the holiday season. The holidays are a time synonymous with family, so when a woman is estranged from her spouse or extended family, it can bring up painful memories. In addition, for mothers, it’s especially disappointing when you cannot provide the “holiday experience” for your children that you would like. This can lead to intense feelings of guilt and shame.
The Halifax Shoebox Project
Each local Shoebox Project chapter is run by volunteer local coordinators. These volunteers organize the collection, inspection, and delivery of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of shoeboxes over the course of the holiday season. This is a huge undertaking and requires impeccable organization and communication skills, not to mention a great investment of time and effort. On the ground in Halifax, our local coordinator, Carole Rankin, has gone above and beyond, making an enormous impact in her community for The Shoebox Project.
Carole decided to take on the role of local coordinator in 2016, after a couple years of volunteering with The Shoebox Project in Halifax. She set out with the lofty goal of getting a shoebox into the hands of every woman in a Nova Scotia shelter.
“Nobody thought I could do it,” Carole reflects. “But I knew my community cared enough. Sometimes people want to help, but just don’t know how; and that’s where we come in.” That year, Carole and her team collected 2,052 shoeboxes, and delivered them personally to 42 unique shelters and community agencies, not only in Nova Scotia, but also in communities across New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
A Holiday Gift Drive is Now Year-Round Programming!
What began as a way to give back during the holiday season, is now an initiative that Canadians can count on at any time of year. We help our supporters organize gift drives and fundraisers in honour of many different occasions, including Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day.
As The Shoebox Project continues to grow, we hope to reach more and more women living in remote areas of Canada, particularly Indigenous women and girls. We are also working to expand The Shoebox Project for school’s program, so students across the country can learn about complex issues like homelessness and poverty in a fun and creative way, while making a real impact in their local community.