For Christmas, Christina Carlick’s school-aged daughter wants Barbie doll accessories, her two-year old daughter wants “baby stuff,” and her three-year-old son “really likes cars.”
She’s browsing for toys and clothing that have been set up on shelves and tables on the ground floor of Union Gospel Mission’s Women and Families Centre. The charity is trying out a new way of delivering the 500 Christmas hampers it distributes every year: instead of a pre-packed hamper, recipients can browse through this temporary store and get a gift card they can use in a grocery store.
“It’s really helpful. I’ve had a really tough year,” says Carlick of receiving a hamper. But it works much better to be able to pick out toys she knows her children would like, rather than relying on a stranger’s judgement.
“We wanted to give back to the families by giving them the opportunity to choose what would be most appropriate at Christmas time,” said Mike Perks, a youth outreach worker with UGM.
The idea came out of reading the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, Perks explained.
“Sometimes the things that we do to help people are just creating a cycle of poverty in the neighbourhood. So instead of giving a hand out, how do we give a hand up.”
More charities are turning to the store model to distribute items it once would have packaged up and doled out. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank has introduced “community food hubs” at five of its 13 locations, and hopes to eventually convert all its locations to this model.
People are given a time slot and then browse food set up on tables and shelves and, at some locations, can buy low-cost fresh fruit and vegetables provided by organizations that the food bank has partnered with. The new system has virtually eliminated the hours-long lineups of the past, where tempers would fray as people worried about the food running out.
“Every time you give people a choice you can provide people with dignity,” said Aart Schuurman Hess, executive director of the food bank. “It’s much better than just holding out your hands.”
After browsing and picking out items for each child, UGM volunteers wrap up the presents and drive the recipients and their gifts home. In return, hamper recipients are expected to be willing to volunteer at the hamper store, or take a financial literacy workshop.
Jeremy Hunka, a spokesman for UGM, noted that 74 per cent of children who live in the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona live in poverty. Perks said demand for the Christmas hampers has grown, which he attributed in part to the Budzey, a nearby social housing building operated by RainCity Housing that opened in 2015. The building houses women and women-led families.
There is more need for hampers than UGM can accommodate, and families who want to receive one must register and be interviewed. UGM then allocates the hampers based on who is in greatest need. This year, the 700 Club of Canada contributed $20,000 to the Christmas hamper program.