Markham sisters launch initiative to make hundreds of COVID-19 care packages

·3 min read

The COVID-19 outbreak has had severe impacts on lives all over the world, with the pandemic disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations. In response to the pandemic, two sisters from Markham joined forces to assemble and distribute 350 care packages to community members in need.

Athena Zhong, a third-year medical sciences student at Western University, and Briana Zhong, a Grade 10 Pre-IB student at St. Robert Catholic High School, are co-founders of the student-led initiative, Gifts That Smile.

“The past few months have been difficult for everyone, and we wanted to remind our community that we are here for each other,” said Athena Zhong. “We decided to assemble hygiene-care packages to ensure that people can access essential items during these challenging times.”

Starting from June, Athena and Briana — along with passionate friends Jiawei Zhao, Fiona Zhao, and Maria Haque — have been working hard from project initiation and planning, to project execution.

In order to get more appropriate gifts-in-kind, the group of students spent numerous hours on product research online, and phone calls and emails to organizations.

“Now, more than ever, vulnerable populations need our support. We are grateful for the support that we have received, which has enabled us to make hundreds of packages,” said Briana Zhong.

The packages consist of full-size shampoos, conditioners, toothpaste, toothbrushes, interdental brushes and picks, floss, deodorants, bars of soap, pads, face masks, denture bath and brush sets, tissue boxes, pencils, crayons, balloons, pins, stickers, activity sheets, $250 worth of Metro grocery gift cards, Manna insulated tumblers, bottles of hand sanitizer, and handmade cards.

The comprehensive hygiene packages have been sent to patients and front-line heroes at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, at-risk and homeless youth at 360°kids, seniors at Chartwell Retirement Residences and Social Services Network, and other vulnerable populations.

On Oct. 23, Gifts That Smile finished their seventh and largest delivery to date of 100 10in x 10in x 10in care packages to the Unionville Home Society Foundation.

More than providing them with essential items, the Zhong sisters and their partners also provided a source of hope that brought the community together after months of challenges.

Since the project was launched, Athena and Briana have been highly praised by community leaders and politicians, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Markham MP Mary Ng and Mayor Frank Scarpitti.

“Young people are not just leaders of tomorrow, they are truly leaders of today,” Ng said. “Their contributions to communities across the country are making Canada a stronger, more resilient place to call home.”

Athena and Briana said they are happy to receive a lot of sponsorships, such as the RisingYouth grant and TakingITGlobal. They were also funded by the Government of Canada, Canada Service Corps, and supported by Procter & Gamble, GlobalMedic, and Plan International and Metro.

“I would like to give a special thank you to Mr. Daniel Zaroski, our community adviser, who has provided us with tremendous advice and words of guidance throughout this process,” Briana added.

In the future, the two young sisters hope to continue with this initiative. “We will be working on building partnerships to create more essential care packages. It is our goal to support as many vulnerable populations in need as possible, and to reach out to more communities within the province.”

Any organization or individual would like to support the initiative, please contact Athena and Briana at giftsthatsmile@gmail.com or through the GoFundMe link: https://gf.me/u/y6kqt5.

Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Economist & Sun