There are some things you never forget.
Joan LeMoine, Shirley Gallop and Helen Poste have been volunteering in the SOS Christmas program for more than two decades each, yet some of their memories of people accessing the program seem as crisp as a cold winter’s night.
“I remember this gentleman who came in and he had just been let go from the mill, his wife had passed away from cancer, and prior to him coming in, a lovely jewelry box was donated,” LeMoine recalled. “This man came in and he didn’t want to be there, and didn’t want to ask for help, but he had a teenaged daughter and he didn’t know what to do for her. And I said ‘I’ve got the perfect thing for her,’ and I dug out this jewelry box and we put jewelry and make-up in it, and he went away crying. He was just so grateful.
“There were a lot of stories like that. That’s why you always have the Kleenex handy,” she added with a smile.
This year marks the 50th year of the SOS Caring for Community at Christmas program. Today the program ensures all local children and youth receive a special gift at Christmas, and families and individuals receive grocery store gift cards so they may choose food items that are meaningful to them over the holidays.
When Gallop started volunteering in the Christmas program it was 1992, before the current thrift shop was built. Space was limited in the current SOS administration building, as it also housed the thrift shop, so the Christmas program was located across the street. “I started volunteering in the little, old, cold house, which is no longer there,” Gallop said with a laugh, explaining that the house was torn down when the current thrift shop was built. “I know that we were busy from the time we got there to the time we left.”
Within a couple of years, the program was moved to a warmer spot, inside what is now called the SOS Community Services Centre. At that time, residents could get a gift for their children and a food hamper. Poste remembers one year when they were able to spice up the hampers a little bit.
“One year we were packing the bags and The Red and White Store came and said they had a bunch of Christmas cakes that didn’t sell, and we had Christmas cakes to put in the bags instead of just tin cans of soup. It was lovely!” she said, smiling at the memory.
“And people loved getting them because it was festive,” LeMoine added.
Thinking back on all the gifts that have passed through the Christmas program over the years, Poste lights up at the thought of some handmade, wooden toys.
“In those days there wasn’t the technology that we have today,” she said.
The three ladies agreed that the need is greater these days, and LeMoine said it seems that more people are out of work, and there seem to be more homeless people. But every year the program improves, as the volunteers and staff learn better ways to do things and serve those in need, she said.
And every year, Gallop revealed, there are people who struggle with asking for help.
“I know a lot of them don’t want to come through that door, but once they’re there and we can help them out… then they go away happy, whether we’re in tears or they’re in tears… it’s a good program.”
LeMoine said the generosity of the community never ceases to amaze and surprise her, and she’s grateful to be able to volunteer with SOS.
“I think it’s the heart of the community, I do,” she said. “And there isn’t a thing we go and buy; everything is donated and (the community) trusts us to give to the needy and make sure everybody has what they need. That is what SOS is to me.”
Poste shared why volunteering was so important to her during her first years with SOS.
“I think people like us (volunteered) not only for the help we gave others but the help we gave ourselves. It meant that we cared enough to give back to the community we’re living in, and I still feel that that’s what the SOS is all about. We care to give back to people living right here, not in Nanaimo or Victoria or Vancouver, but right here.”
To support residents in our community this Christmas visit www.sosd69.com to donate online, call 250-248-2093 to donate by phone, or drop into the SOS Community Services Centre in Parksville at 245 West Hirst Ave. during business hours.
— Lissa Alexander is the marketing co-ordinator at SOS.