Audrey Pellett has found her niche in helping those who live in the remote areas of northern Canada.
It began with a small collection of fur coats originally destined to become plush teddy bears, that instead were eventually mailed to remote Canadian communities to keep people warm, says Pellett.
It has turned into much more than that.
Pellett says there was a time in her life, 25 to 30 years ago, when she collected fur coats to turn into teddy bears. But she had five coats left over from that project, instead, as she moved house to house, moving them with her.
When she learned recently about Clothing for our Northern Friends, a Facebook group that matches items to be donated with people in need of those items, she knew what to do with the coats.
She also discovered there are many people with fur coats they don’t wear, but don’t want to throw out. “Everyone who donates a fur says, ‘I look at it in the closet, and don’t know what to do with it,’” she says. She provided the solution for them.
The first coat she posted on the group page drew 140 responses from people who wanted it. She estimates that since then she has sent between 60 to 80 fur coats north, packed in boxes that are sold by Canada Post, including the cost of shipping. She can get a fur coat into a $34 box, usually with room left over. “It’s a great deal from Canada Post,” she says. Although so far they have been real fur, faux is also acceptable — it’s not as suitable for the coldest weather, but is still warm enough to be useful.
The box can weigh up to five kilograms, so she might ask the recipient what items they might need to bring it up to that weight, and also typically packs some chocolate as well, because after all, “who doesn’t like chocolate.”
Some she sends are worn as coats, and others are repurposed into warm mittens, hats, or coats for children. “It’s very hard to sew with fur,” she says. “The talent some have to do that is really amazing. Sometimes the recipient will send a photo of a child or grandchild wearing what they’ve made.”
Most of the coats she has sent went to Nunavut, a few to the North West Territories, and some to northern Ontario and Quebec. These are places where there are few stores, certainly no second-hand stores, and the prices of what is available for sale in those remote communities “would blow you away. Imagine if you have three kids to clothe, and incomes are not anywhere near the level of the south.”
When Pellett saw a request from a woman “desperate for a wedding dress,” although it was outside of her norm, she decided she would try to help, and put the word out to some of her friends in Niagara. She got a good response, took photos and got all the particulars of the dresses, and was able to let the woman in search of the dress choose which one she wanted.
“The woman who gave it to me got married in 1985, and still had it in that souvenir box you get from the cleaners. She was thrilled that it was going up north to someone who could use it. And the recipient was so happy, overcome with gratitude.”
When the recipient was hesitant about the price of shipping, which was going to be $100 as the dress was packed in the box from the cleaners, Pellett reached out to some “earth angels” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, who offered to foot the cost.
Because she received photos from several women who had dresses to give away, she says her role has morphed to include wedding dresses. She has also sent men’s suits and some children’s clothing. If a friend has something to give away, she will help out by posting on the site and making the connections for them. She is limiting her involvement to that, because she knows if she doesn’t, it could easily become all-consuming, filling her home with items to send north.
Niagara-on-the-Lake local Louise Waldie is an administrator of the Clothing for our Northern Friends, and Pellett is one of about 7,500 members of the group that matches items available from donors across southern Canada to those who need them in northern communities.
“Louise is a force,” says Pellett. “It warms my heart what she has done for our northern neighbours.”
The items are provided for free, but recipients are now, in most cases, expected to pay for the shipping, says Waldie. That decision was made to reduce the chances of people asking for items, some of which, especially the furs, are valuable, and then selling them, although, she adds, “we can’t curtail it completely.”
There are other groups that look after other necessities, such as food, for fly-in communities, she says, but she has decided to focus on clothing, which is also essential, and difficult to come by.
She also likes the approach of individuals sending needed items directly to recipients, although there are a few northern groups, such as day care centres or social service agencies, which have been vetted, and which members may ship to.
Waldie says when she and her husband Andrew Porteous received a free flight to a destination they could choose, within a certain radius, they decided to go to Iqaluit, a place they would likely never visit if it weren’t for that free trip. It was a valuable learning experience, enabling her to picture in her mind the tundra above the treeline, the difference in culture from the south, and the difficulty residents have in purchasing what they need.
“It seems more real, now that I’ve seen the environment. The land is very different from anywhere else in Canada. There is so much we take for granted that people in these communities don’t have access to. The number of stores is very minimal, and everything is very costly. Used clothing here is easy to come by, but it isn’t there. This gave me the context to move my focus there.”
She says it’s made clear that when people post that they have items to give away, the recipient is not determined by “first come, first served.” Rather donors are encouraged to look at the responses and make their own call about who needs it the most.
She emphasizes clothing must be either new or gently used, so that money isn’t spent on shipping items which are not usable.
If there is any damage or visible wear, the condition of the items must be listed as such.
For locals who are downsizing, small household items may also be posted, she says.