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holiday giving

Co-workers Lily Macream (left), Sophie Choy-Wallace and Mark Wallace started offering free turkey dinners through a Craigslist ad to needy families three years ago.J.P. MOCZULSKI

It's the electronic age's version of dumping your threadbare couch at the curb: posting an ad on Craigslist's Free Stuff section. The online portal has become the go-to site for students furnishing their first apartments and antique dealers in search of restoration projects.

But a month ago, the usual Toronto-area postings were interrupted by a different kind of ad:

I'm offering a free Christmas dinner (ingredients only, and you cook the meal yourself) and toys for a family who needs a break this holiday season...I have been overly blessed this year, and wish to give back.

This season, the ubiquitous classifieds site has also become a venue for benevolent deeds.

At last count, 12 similar ads were posted in the Greater Toronto Area and hundreds across North America.

If there's ever been a year for putting a feast on someone's table, it's this one. In a recent study, Food Banks Canada reported an 18-per-cent jump in the number of Canadians using food banks. But the study also revealed that 31 per cent of food banks couldn't meet demand.

In these conditions, it's not surprising the Craigslist ads have elicited a flood of responses.

Molly Sante, a 35-year-old holistic doctor in Brampton, Ont., received 15 responses to the aforementioned ad. She'd worked as "the soup lady" at a local food bank for six Christmases before deciding to change the way she gave.

"I just feel like it has more value if it comes from an anonymous place," she said.

Two weeks ago, she raised $1,500 to cover the cost of three dinners, plus toys for 13 kids, by holding a pay-what-you-can fundraising clinic. In exchange for a cash donation, her patients received an acupuncture treatment.

"You don't have to have a lot to give," she said. "You don't have to be affluent or rolling in money or resources."

Three years ago, Sophie Choy-Wallace and her husband, Mark Wallace, were stumped on what to get each other for Christmas that wouldn't exceed the $35 cap they'd set.

"I said, 'Isn't Christmas about the smell of turkey cooking and the smell of citrus in the air? Why don't we help someone out with a Christmas dinner?'" recounted Ms. Choy-Wallace, a 38-year-old customer service supervisor at Scotiabank in Toronto.

The couple has made posting a Craigslist ad for free Christmas dinners an annual tradition. It has since spread to Ms. Choy-Wallace's office, where 100 of her colleagues now fork over $10 each instead of participating in a Secret Santa gift exchange. This year, her ad yielded 70 responses and the group is delivering 47 dinners on Christmas Eve.

Ms. Choy-Wallace said the e-mails can be a difficult read. A few respondents have detailed how crime and abuse have ravaged their families. In some cases, she's asked one of her colleagues to deliver a holiday basket.

"It's just too much detail for me to meet them face-to-face," she said.

Ms. Sante, too, has been shaken by the hard-luck stories shared by respondents. The thought that some might be exaggerating has crossed her mind, but she gives them the benefit of the doubt.

"If they're fabricating or not, they are meant to receive this gift and it's not my place to judge them," she said.

Direct giving can also elicit distrust from recipients.

Lily Macream, 37, one of Ms. Choy-Wallace's colleagues who has taken a lead role in organizing the dinner deliveries, said some have been suspicious that she is running a scam.

"Some people have said [in e-mails] 'They're taking advantage of people's bad luck to make themselves feel better,'" she said. "My partner went to deliver a turkey, and it was late coming and [the recipient]called the police to report that it was a scam."

Dozens of social-service agencies run Christmas hamper programs of their own each year, delivering food to individuals and families who have registered with them. While some donors and recipients may feel more comfortable working with established organizations, Andrew Burditt, a spokesman for the Salvation Army, encourages the Craigslist donors.

"If you're willing to help your fellow man who is feeling vulnerable or marginalized, I think that's something that should be celebrated," he said.

In any case, the Craigslist posters' naysayers are greatly outnumbered by their supporters.

One woman e-mailed Ms. Choy-Wallace offering to donate gifts on behalf of her husband's company - a toy distributor. In past years, she has received baked goods or gift cards for groceries from strangers who spotted her ad.

Ms. Sante has received her share of similar responses. The relatively small gift of receiving a meal from a stranger can be a major pick-me-up to those who have suffered through a tough year, she said.

"You just need a hand from the universe just to get you back [on track]" she said.