The event gave about 100 people a turkey dinner, warm clothing and a bag full of essentials that most of us take for granted. (Alan Bailward Photography)

Christmas charity event fosters sense of community

100 Maple Ridge people fed, clothed and given donations of essentials

Last winter, Sonia Jones took about three bags of gloves, scarves and other winter clothing to Anita Place Tent City in Maple Ridge.

Her donations went fast.

Her friend Angela Wagner had collected and then donated winter clothes on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side two years ago.

This Christmas, the two women decided to collaborate on a larger effort aimed at helping the homeless and other vulnerable people in Maple Ridge.

Their plans, laid out in social media, were modest at first, but kept snowballing.

“I really wanted to give back, and I have friends who are altruistic who jumped in,” Jones said.

Soon they had teams of volunteers creating plastic mats for people, those living on the streets, to lay on. People were donating toiletries and other items for what turned into 150 bags of essentials. They baked. They gave used coats and sweaters, and planned to have the recipients receive it all at a turkey dinner on Dec. 22 – the Saturday before Christmas.

The mats are a unique project. They are created by taking plastic grocery bags and cutting them into strips, attaching them to create a kind of “plastic wool” that can then be crocheted into a mat.

Jones doesn’t crochet, but she and Wagner helped by creating that “plastic wool.” The women who made the mats were impressed with the resulting product, she said, and there were many comments that they wanted to make some for their own camping trips. The mats are warm, comfortable and durable.

“They keep people off the ground, and the chill doesn’t get to them,” said Jones.

They created and gave out about 30 mats. They take a long time to make – from six hours to weeks for slower crocheters – but volunteers are continuing to make them, with a goal to produce about 50 more.

Maple Ridge churches regularly host community suppers on Saturdays. For their December event, they made a turkey dinner and allowed Jones, Wagner and a team of about 20 volunteers to hand out the many items they had gathered at Golden Ears United Church.

The combined volunteers fed about 100 people – some housed and some homeless. They let them try on coats, hats and warm clothing.

“People got to choose their Christmas gift, based on size and what suits them,” said Jones.

Each attendee received a bags that contained toques, mittens, new socks, toiletries, baked cookies and gift certificates for local fast food restaurants.

All of the items for donation were taken, and when everyone had eaten their fill, the remaining food was taken to Anita Place’s warming tent.

Jones looks back at a great community effort.

“So many people donated things, contributed or donated their time,” she said. “I met so many amazing people in the community.”

Wagner works with adults and youth with disabilities, and is studying at Douglas College toward a career as a social worker.

She said the dinner and mat-making projects brought people together and created a sense of community in her hometown in a way that was more meaningful than her previous donations in Vancouver Downtown Eastside.

“I found it was really important to get together with other people,” she said.

Having a Christmas dinner with people from her community – people she sees on the street, or working in local businesses – made it impactful for her.

“It was a great event, and it was really nice to give back to your community,” she said. “Everyone was very grateful.”

She found there were actually people who felt like they didn’t deserve to take the bags of essential items. She had to talk them into it. Some people talk about people on the streets having a sense of entitlement, but she found the opposite.

“I just hope next year we can reach even more people,” she said.

Jones made numerous trips to Anita Place during the project, and got to know residents by name.

“They are people I now know, and it doesn’t make a difference if they are housed or whatever.”

Jones said they did hear some backlash from people who do not support efforts to support the homeless. They heard criticism and even threatening tones, and the volunteers did engage them in social media, asking politely what their concerns are.

“Maple Ridge is becoming so negative, and it really needs to stop, because so many people are a missed paycheque away from being homeless,” she said.

“Remember, we’re all neighbours, and we’re all community.”

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