Staring down sudden economic misfortune is old hat in Cape Breton, which has endured the closings of coal mines, steel plants and the loss of all manner of well-paying jobs. It may not be surprising, then, that what has unfolded in a tiny corner of northeast Nova Scotia over the past two weeks is one of those timeless holiday narratives that remind us that the real magic of the season is in the giving.
Fuelled by nearly $50,000 in donations, volunteers have spent every waking hour this week scurrying all over Sydney, N.S., cramming vans full of giant stuffed teddy bears and fire trucks and Paw Patrol paraphernalia. They have taken delivery of skids piled with sacks of rutabagas and Pepsi and bags of new potatoes. They have stood outside, jolly and kind despite numbing cold, to pass out frozen turkeys while wishing a happy Christmas to hundreds of families who were knocked down badly a few weeks ago.
Six hundred people in Sydney lost their jobs in early December when a local call centre, ServiCom, declared bankruptcy. Most of the company’s minimum-wage employees had already gone for weeks without proper pay as the company struggled with its bills. Mid-afternoon on Dec. 6, they were told to power down their workstations and go home.
Everyone was out of work. Panic set in.
From his office window, Salvation Army Major Corey Vincent could see ServiCom’s parking lot and watched the bad news unfold on Dec. 6.
“Police cars were out front and there were people crying and embracing each other. We knew whatever was happening was going to have a big impact. And we knew we had to respond,” he said. The food bank in the building opened for extended hours. The Salvation Army will ease stress over the holidays again as the main administrator of the community donations for the ServiCom workers.
“Our main priority is to make sure each family has a Christmas – that everyone has a turkey on their table for dinner and wakes up to presents under the tree,” Major Vincent said.
Outside the church, a broader effort began to unfurl. Seaside Communications, a telecommunications company, donated $10,000 (Seaside’s employees agreed to redirect the funds for their holiday party). That, Major Vincent said, launched an outpouring from other local businesses of money and gift cards that are paying for everything from furnace oil to presents and food.
The gift from grocery chain Sobey’s is 600 turkeys big enough to feed the families of every ServiCom employee, plus all the trimmings. Other donations added up to allow each child of a former employee more than $100 in gifts, which parents lined up to pick out on Thursday morning.
Crystal Perry, a mother of four children ages 9, 6, 2 and 1, fought back tears as a volunteer helped her choose gifts for her kids – Play-Doh, a ride-on Mega Bloks jeep, knitted sweaters and an oversized purple plush octopus.
“When you have kids and you feel like you can’t do anything for them … and you walk in here,” she paused, gaping at the thousands of donated toys. “I don’t know what to say. I can’t say thank you enough.”
Hairstylist Alma Head opened her shop for a day of free haircuts and makeovers for laid-off workers. Her staff served more than 200 people, she said, adding that this was her way of saying thank you to the community after many volunteered to help salvage her business during severe flooding two years ago.
“That’s just what you do when you want to pay it forward,” said Ms. Head. “I’ve gotten so much support for my own business, it is the least I could do.”
Todd Riley said the same. ServiCom’s former manager, Mr. Riley had to tell employees they no longer had jobs. The doors had barely shut behind them when he formed a team of colleagues to work with him – without pay – to find a buyer for the call centre. With government aid, Mr. Riley helped broker the $1.5-million sale of the call centre to MCI Canada, a subsidiary of the Iowa-based Marlowe Companies Inc.
The deal is to be finalized on Friday. Mr. Riley gathered former ServiCom employees on Thursday night at the Legion to tell them some might be back to work as early as next week, and most by mid-January.
While many people say they owe their sudden good fortune to Mr. Riley, the ordeal reminded him, too, of the power wrought by community.
“I’ve learned a lot from people about how important it is to be community-involved all the time, not just when there is a crisis,” he said. “It has been overwhelming.”