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23 Mar, Thursday
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Montreal Families

One mother’s massive effort to brighten Xmas for kids in need

It’s the time of year when most Montreal kids are writing up Christmas lists and dreaming of the bright paper packages that will soon pile up under their trees. But if parents are struggling to pay rent and buy food, fleeing an abusive relationship, or are refugees settling in for a first chilly Christmas in Canada, well then, Santa needs a little help.

For 15 years, Carolyn Bouchard MacNeil, together with a crack team of “elves,” has been organizing a grassroots toy drive to help Santa get presents to the kids who need them most. Last Christmas, her efforts brought holiday cheer to more than 2,000 disadvantaged local children, and MacNeil said she expects to help even more kids this year.

The toy drive currently supplies gifts for children at 20 shelters as well as hundreds more who are identified by five non profit groups who work with refugees and families living in poverty. The scope of the toy drive grows every year, MacNeil said, adding one or two more shelters or non profit partners almost every year.

But even though the scale of operations is much bigger than when she started, the mother of three said she has maintained a hands-on and personal approach, running the whole operation from her home in N.D.G. “The gifts are piled up in my garage, my downstairs shower, my hallway, etc.” MacNeil said.

Unlike other toy drives, each gift is chosen for a specific child. MacNeil receives a list from each organization that specifies the age and gender of the children who need presents. She relies on a core team of 10 head elves to help wrap and tag each gift with the child’s name.

Although the identities of the children remain confidential, and are not shared with the donors of the gifts, MacNeil said the people who participate in the toy drive seem to appreciate that they know the gift is going to a specific child, not a warehouse. “People don’t want to just put a random toy in a box,” she said.

For MacNeil, the motivation to organize the toy drive is personal. Her father was orphaned as an infant, and grew up in group care instead of a loving home. Although he became a successful businessman, she said she always remembered the stories of the hardships he endured as a child. Her mother, too, was an inspiration. “My mom was the volunteer queen of Dollard for many years,” she said.

For more information, or to participate in Carolyn’s Toy Drive, email carolynstoydrive@gmail.com.

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