It’s looking a lot like a very different Christmas for Newark Neighbours, with the largest outpouring of generosity they have seen yet.
When it comes to helping others, COVID is truly bringing out the Christmas spirit in a community that has always been generous. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever for our clients,” says Newark president Laura Gibson.
It’s also going to be the busiest for the group of volunteers, who ensure those who are struggling to make ends meet in town are well-cared for at this time of year.
Gibson is estimating by the time registrations are finished, they will have about 50 families, couples and individuals needing help at Christmas.
That’s more than other years, when volunteers typically organized gifts and food for a list of 35 to 40 people who have asked for help, but Gibson says they will have more than enough food and gifts for all those in need.
This year, “we have had a huge outpouring of support. It’s unbelievable, the donations that are coming in.”
By early this week, Newark had 20 different groups and organizations helping out.
“That is unheard of for us,” says Gibson.
Many of them have reached out for the first time with “new support,” she says, including offers to help deliver the Christmas food boxes and gifts.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, when the number of families and individuals reaching out for help is going up every day, she adds.
“Right now, we’re up to 45, and we’re getting more calls, all from people in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We don’t get involved with other communities.”
The increased need is likely a combination of factors, with COVID causing layoffs, and benefits running out, she says.
There are at least six major food drives planned, and other, smaller collections, she says.
Volunteers are contacting families on the list to ask what their children are hoping to find under the tree at Christmas, and they will make sure the kids get some of the items on their list, as they have for the past several years.
A huge blessing for Newark Neighbours has come from Cornerstone Church, which has offered its Virgil space on Niagara Stone Road to store the food and gifts as they come in, sort the donations and organize the food hampers and gifts to be delivered.
“It will be wonderful to have the space. We’re so lucky to have that opportunity,” says Gibson. “It’s really uplifting, just amazing to see how many new people are offering to help. Newark Neighbours celebrates 50 years next year, and it’s great to see the response we’re getting from the community. Our wonderful volunteers are going to have a very busy December.”
This year, Newark Neighbours also has support from a different quarter.
James Symons will be donating “care packages” just for the men who are Newark clients, having expanded a program he began four years ago, called the Toolbox Project.
From Thorold, Symons began filling boxes with items for men, such as toiletries, which include toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant and soap, some word search or other puzzle books, snacks and candy, and winter accessories such as gloves, tuques, and always, says Symons, two pairs of socks.
Instead of boxes, he mostly fills reusable nylon carry bags. Many of his gifts go to men who are homeless or in shelters, and he finds the bags much more convenient for them.
Last year, he helped more than 700 men make it through the cold winter. This year he is adding a few more to his list, and with COVID and an increased need that all agencies across the region are seeing, he is expecting the number to top 1,000.
This is the first year he is including the Niagara-on-the-Lake charity, he says, because if there is a need, he wants to fill it.
“Men seem to be forgotten. If they’re in need they’re told to pick up their socks. I’m trying to stand up for them,” says Symons.
“Most people don’t think about there being need in NOTL, but we know there is. The work Newark Neighbours does is amazing.”
He says he’ll deliver the gift bags to Newark on Dec. 9, in time for them to be distributed with Christmas hampers and gifts.
Although Newark has been overwhelmed with generosity this year, Gibson says, this is a welcome addition, with one of Symons’ kits going to each of the local male clients.
Newark volunteers have made the decision to close the thrift store for now. They see a large number of shoppers who come to visit NOTL and stop in at Newark Neighbours — they hear about it at the B&Bs where they stay, and from other locals, and some make a yearly visit to the shop, says Gibson. But this season, with the large numbers of COVID cases in other regions, and the very close quarters at the thrift shop, they decided not to take any chances, she explains.
The food bank will be open until Dec. 15, and volunteers will begin preparing the hampers Dec. 16, to be distributed Dec. 22, says Gibson.
Donations of food and gifts will be accepted at the John Street location Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. until noon, until Dec. 15.
Deliveries will include not only a complete Christmas dinner and gifts, but two weeks’ worth of food.
With so many food drives, Gibson says, “we’ll have lots of food, and enough to restore shelves after Christmas. This is a very busy, wonderful time.”