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Holiday Heroes

29 Dec 2017

As the magic of the holidays envelops us –
in every city and town across the country, there are Canadians gifting something very special to our communities. These local heroes have found the true joy in giving, and they are inspiring us to see the bigger picture this season.


Holiday Hero: Gillian Zulauf
In support of: Holiday Helpers, Renascent House
Community: GTA
Day job: Project Lead, Ontario Place

Please tell us about your amazing holiday initiative...

Each year, I ask family and friends to join me in two initiatives: adopting a family through Holiday Helpers and gift bags for Renascent House. And each year, they step up and offer unconditional support. I count myself lucky to have so many wonderful humans in my life!

Holiday Helpers is like a Christmas miracle come true for low-income families with young children that are trying to improve their situation. The families get a gift card to a local grocery store for Christmas dinner, a beautifully decorated artificial tree and personalized gifts from their wish lists. It's a one-time deal for each family, and a new group of families is offered the opportunity each year.

Renascent is a high-impact drug and alcohol rehab centre.
I've had family and friends in the “system” and I know the holidays can be difficult, and I wanted to do something that would be a gesture of love and support. So, one year, when I ended up with an excess of donations for a Holiday Helpers family, I began making gift bags. It's been just over 5 years now.
I know it's not much, but it's a spot of light in a bleak, lonely time.

How long have you been contributing to it?

I came across Adopt-A-Family / Holiday Helpers in 2009
and immediately knew this was how I wanted to celebrate the holidays.

How did it all begin?

A few years back, I found myself burnt out and exhausted. I had done all the requisite social engagements, post-work cocktails and family dinners. I'd checked everyone off my list and spent hours crafting “joy” for the loved ones in my life. When Christmas rolled around, all I wanted to do was stay in bed in pyjamas. It's easy to get lost during the season – so much time is spent trying to keep up, dress up and show up. So I made the decision to do the holidays differently the next year.

What has the response been?

The response has been phenomenal. I find most humans are kind and generous, often looking for a way to give back, but struggling to find an outlet. Each year, we play Santa for a family of 5 or 6, and make over 50 gift bags for those in treatment. I'd say that is a pretty impressive community response. Friends pass it on to other friends, companies have contributed to the gift bags, others have gone on to recruit their own circle of giving and support more families.


Do you get to see the results or hear the stories?

Both Holiday Helpers and Renascent Gift Bags (self run) are anonymous. That being said, you sometimes see letters a family has written about what the program means to them, and it's more than enough. This year, our family included a single mother, and all she wanted was bed sheets and dishware for the home. Last year, we had a single dad who only asked for help getting a suit so he could go on job interviews. We've also had families of newly arrived Canadians, families escaping abusive situations, and so on, and it can truly be heartbreaking.

What is the most remarkable thing you've noticed?

The selflessness of those around me who are willing to participate year after year in support of complete strangers, asking for nothing in return.

Why do you do it?

I do it because I can. Because there has to be more to the daily grind than coming home, sleeping and going back to work again. I do it because my heart hurts when I turn on the news, or walk down the street or read social media posts, and I feel it's better to do something than idly watch it all unfold and just say, “That makes me sad.”

Who do you think of as your role model(s)?

I constantly find myself in awe of those around me. Yesterday, my role model was my niece; today, it's a very good friend of mine who woke up with a smile even though she was struggling with a family emergency the day before. As long as I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by those who inspire me, I will constantly find role models to admire.

Is there anything you'd like to see change next year?

I plan to do more. My niece has started her own initiative called Brooklyn's Blankets and it made me think about the youth of today. I'd like to establish an initiative that engages the youth who currently support the Adopt-A-Family and Renascent gift-giving programs. I'd love to see each child empowered to create his or her own impact each year – and not just over the holidays. I'd also like to expand to animal welfare and mental health awareness. I've still got quite a few details to work through, but I'm feeling good about it!

How does Holiday Helpers find these families?

In 2017, Holiday Helpers worked with some very worthy organizations to identify over 500 families that would not have been able to celebrate Christmas otherwise (I'm listing them all to help generate awareness!): Red Door Shelter, On-Track Career & Employment Services, Ernestine's Women's Shelter, Nellie's Shelter for Women & Children, Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, North York Women's Shelter, Braeburn Neighbourhood Place, Aisling Discoveries-Child and Family Centre, Dr. Roz's Healing Place, The Church of St. Jude, Wexford, Malvern After School Intergenerational Program, Family Service Toronto, Christie Refugee Welcome Centre, York Region Victim Services, Peel Family Shelter, The Peer Project, Fred Victor, Skylark Youth, St. Michael's Hospital, NICU Toronto District School Board, Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board.


Holiday Hero: Lesia Gilbert
In support of: Toy Mountain
through the Riverside Community Association
Community: Ottawa
Day Job: Accountant

Please tell us about your amazing holiday initiative…

Toy Mountain has always held a special place in my heart. I hate the idea of a child not getting to enjoy Christmas just because of his or her family's situation. When I joined my local Riverside Community Association here in Ottawa, they collected about 150 toys per year and I wanted to make it bigger. I got local businesses to pledge money so we could buy more toys (I call them my “Toy Mountain Angels”), then I stretched it further by getting deals from local toy sellers. After that, I created toy drop-off points in the neighbourhood, and then in 2015, I decided to add a Toy Mountain parade to our Christmas lineup.


What has the response been like?

Amazing! We just collected over 1,000 toys. Plus, this year, after hearing about the desperate need for food at the Ottawa Food Bank, I decided to add a food drive to our parade, and we got a bunch of contributions for that as well.

Do you get to see the results or hear the stories after?

While I was waiting to be interviewed by CTV last year, I was chatting with Tony Brushett, assistant executive director of the Salvation Army, and one of the stories he told me really stuck: it was about a lady who thanked the Toy Mountain staff through tears of joy – everything her kids had asked for just happened to be in the bags they’d given her.

How did this initiative come to life?

I like bringing the community together. That’s why I’m still the treasurer and director of the RSCA after more than 10 years. I love my neighbourhood and when it comes to philanthropic endeavours, it rallies quite impressively. I see this every year when we collect the toys: the kids seem to enjoy giving the gifts too. My 9-year-old son walks in the parade with me every year and has a blast collecting the toys from spectators. While it does take a lot of my personal time to make these events happen, it is worth every minute when I see everyone enjoying themselves!

Who do you think of as your role model(s)?

My parents. They both volunteered when I was young and I think parents are the best role models for kids. Unfortunately, not enough people volunteer, which is why the mandatory 40-hour volunteer requirement for high school students is so important. It allows kids to experience something they may not otherwise and perhaps find their lifelong passion in the process.

How do you manage to juggle being a mother of three young children (twins no less!), holding down a full-time job and volunteering?

Sleep is optional! Lol. Honestly, it is a challenge. And some things get neglected. Housework was always the first thing to go, so I got a cleaning lady. Most people think I am nuts for doing this for as long as I have, especially after having the twins (they are now three-and-a-half). While my husband is not thrilled with the hundreds of hours I spend volunteering every year, he has also told me how proud he is of me, and he’s really supportive. I try to make sure my family doesn't get neglected in the process, but it doesn't leave too much time for myself!

You received a Governor General Sovereign's Medal for your volunteering efforts. How did you feel when you received it?

It was such a lovely surprise! Volunteers never expect to get any recognition for their efforts. We do it because it supports our community and we enjoy it. But sometimes it is nice to realize that all of the time spent on activities for others doesn’t go unnoticed. I was honoured to have shared that award with some really remarkable people and know that someone in my neighbourhood thought highly enough of me to nominate me.

What does Christmas mean to you?

Christmas to me is magic. It has always been my favourite time of the year. I love finding that perfect gift and seeing faces light up when they open it (young or old). I love the excitement in young kids when they see Santa and the way it brings people together. For me, Christmas was never about getting gifts, it was about the fun of giving them to family – my work for the Toy Mountain drive has given me the opportunity to explore that love a lot more and expand my family just that little bit more!


Holiday Heroes: Todd Bradley & Kevin Coan
In support of: Tree Tossers
Community: Calgary
Day Jobs: Todd - tech entrepreneur in energy;
Kevin - entrepreneur in automotive and industrial valves and parts supplies.

Please tell us about your amazing holiday initiative...

Tree Tossers came about as an almost impulsive reaction to news that Calgary was changing its policy toward Christmas tree recycling and was no longer going to be collecting them. We said, “What have we got to lose? Let's do this!” That was a year ago. We decided to fill the gap, collect trees and become a needed business, with the added benefit of building and giving back to the community.

How long have you been doing it?

We got started last year, about two weeks before Christmas.
The pick-up window was basically the month of January 2017.

Tell us the origin story...

The idea was sparked from a simple announcement on the radio that the city of Calgary wouldn’t be providing Christmas tree pick-up any longer. This led to a phone call between the two of us saying, “Wow, there will be a lot of people stuck with getting rid of their trees! We should do something about that. It is Christmas, maybe we can help some people in the process….” We put our heads together, got to work and launched 48 hours later.

What has the response been like?

Absolutely great. From kids coming out and asking to take their pictures with us, to handshakes and donations. We were even contacted by a local brewery and ended up brewing some Christmas tree beer with them. We had our wrap party there and were able to present the funds to the Calgary Food Bank and Kim DeGagne, a Christmas tree seller who is battling an incurable form of cancer.

How did you get the word out when you started?

Initially, we started with some basic signage and handouts at several tree lots, as well as social media advertising. However, we were extremely fortunate that some news media took up the cause and provided a great deal of exposure.

You wear a Tree Tosser uniform of faux-beards
and lumberjack shirts, tell us about that...

We really wanted to create a brand that people could get behind, and the idea of lumberjacks naturally works well with trees. We also think of lumberjacks as people with strong characters who are willing to work hard to get the job done, but also help out. We created two alter-ego Tree Tosser personas: Pierre (Kevin) and Bo (Todd). We had a bit of fun doing some interviews as those characters – though it's a tad unnerving that when I google my name, it's a bearded and tuqued character that shows up! The beards themselves came from other great Canadian entrepreneurs who started the company Beardo. We had seen them on Dragon's Den and thought they would work great.

Do you get to see the results or hear the stories after?

Absolutely. We recently met with Kim DeGagne, the gentleman we supported last year with funds for his dream trip to Hawaii with his wife. It was great to see that he's doing quite well healthwise and has set up his tree lot again this year. With all the support he received, Kim was inspired to donate a portion of his revenues to cancer research initiatives. We are enthused to be part of an overall environment of paying it forward.

What is the most remarkable thing
you've noticed about what you do? 

For sure, the support of the Calgary community: people were really thankful that we were giving back on their behalf for a service they valued. It's also rewarding to hear people say things like, “Ohhhh… that was YOU guys? What a great service!”

How would you do things differently next year?

Despite putting together a very effective online platform in a very short period of time, there are a couple of details to streamline with the web-based ordering and customer interface. Our payment portal will be simplified and real-time online communication is going to be available so that it’s easier than ever to use our service.

What do you hope to achieve...
and just as important, on a personal level, why do you do it? 

We hope to achieve fantastic pick-up volumes and would welcome so many orders that bringing even more Tossers into the fold is necessary. The more trees we pick up, the bigger the donation to our selected causes will be. This year, we will align a portion of our proceeds with Kim’s support of the Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic, as well as a portion to another personal cause. While we both agree this is a fun business, connecting with community is the true motivator for us. It gives us the most satisfaction and really helps drive us – the energy is so positive!

Who do you think of as your role model(s)?

We both grew up in entrepreneurial and hard-working families, so parents, siblings and even grandparents are at the forefront of our minds. We witnessed hard work and sacrifice, and also selfless and generous spirits which helped develop us into who we are today.