Shoebox Project moves online to help women in need

·3 min read

A shoebox can’t end homelessness, but it can make the holidays a bit more bearable for women fleeing domestic violence or living in poverty.

That’s the aim of the Shoebox Project, a charity that serves women in Hamilton, Haldimand, Norfolk and Brant who are homeless or at risk of losing their home.

Supporters normally donate shoeboxes filled with $50 worth of knitwear, makeup and skincare products, fine chocolate and other self-care items that women in precarious situations may not choose to purchase for themselves.

At Christmastime, the festively wrapped boxes are delivered to women in need through food banks, women’s shelters, outreach centres and transitional housing agencies.

“Most of these women feel forgotten during the holiday season, so when a woman receives this physical gift, it’s really just something that brings her joy,” said Kylie Vandendool, who co-ordinates the Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant chapter of the all-volunteer organization.

“We’ve received letters and notes about how life-changing this small gesture can be,” added Hamilton co-ordinator Margaret Petta. “Just the simple act of giving someone a gift card or a warm pair of mittens has helped lift the mood of these women.”

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, donors can go to ShoeboxProject.org and fill a $50 “virtual shoebox” for a woman in their community, which will be delivered in the form of a gift card.

“We just want to keep our community and our recipients and our volunteers healthy and safe,” Vandendool said of the switch to an online campaign.

Just as important as the gifts themselves are letters from donors that share words of comfort and encouragement for shoebox recipients.

“It makes her feel loved and supported, and that she has somebody out there who has her back,” Vandendool said.

“You have women who have left domestic abuse situations, and maybe they need that little support to know that they’ve done the right thing. You have women who are struggling to put food on the table, so they’re thinking of their families before themselves. So to have someone think about them during this time is just really nice.”

Last year, the Shoebox Project helped 521 women in Hamilton and 828 in Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant. The need has grown this year, with COVID-19 pushing more women into poverty and exacerbating homelessness.

Tent encampments have cropped up in Hamilton, where thousands of residents already use homeless shelters. In rural Ontario, the “invisible homeless” bounce from couch to couch or sleep rough in their cars and on trails as they wait years for affordable housing.

The online campaign goal in Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant is to deliver 1,000 gifts to women who could use some holiday cheer. An online auction running through the chapter’s Facebook page ends Nov. 8.

“We’re trying to hit that aggressive number just because the need is definitely there,” Vandendool said.

“As much as Hamilton can be divided at times, it’s so empowering and positive to have that sense of community and giving during this time,” Petta added.

Donations to both chapters — either made online or in the form of gift cards dropped off at local library branches — are due Dec. 11.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator