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holiday guide

April Rutka runs Holiday Helpers, a grassroots charity.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Need a break from the retail merry-go-round? Want to help a stranger in need or do something that befits your Toronto the Good resident status? You've come to the right place. Below are some local and international charities that will help you ward off the holiday ennui by donating and volunteering.


Holiday Helpers


In 1999, April and Sarah Rutka heard about a family in their community whose house had burnt down. When they learned that the family did not have a Christmas tree, they dropped one off, much to the family's delight. The next year they did the same for three others. The year after, the number grew to five. Before long, Holiday Helpers was born.

Since then, the charity has grown to provide Christmas packages for 200 low-income families every year, with help from some 300 volunteers. Recipients are often single-parent households living on a total income of less than $25,000.

The 100-per-cent volunteer-run organization no longer offers artificial trees alone. In a deliberate effort to provide further poverty relief, Holiday Helpers' packages now include winter clothes along with gift certificates for holiday meals.

The packages are put together over the course of a weekend (this year, Dec. 16-18) and distributed the following Monday.

"It's almost like a wedding. It all happens within a two-to-three-hour period," explains April Rutka, founder and president.

Karen Richards has been volunteering with the Rutka sisters for over a decade, and has seen the organization grow from its modest basement beginnings to a formidable presence on the holiday charitable circuit. In her current role as its volunteer manager, Ms. Richards enjoys seeing many participants who make it a family tradition to show up every year.

"On weekends, you see a lot of families. You see moms and dads and a couple of little kids. We even have volunteers who have been past recipients," she says.

Lisa Foster, 31, is a single parent and one such former beneficiary of the Holiday Helpers packages. "Before, you'd have to go somewhere for perishable foods and you'd have to go somewhere else and you'd get a tree. When Holiday Helpers started, it was like Santa coming to my house."

She hopes to return the favour one day. "I'll be finishing my business degree at Seneca College soon. Maybe I can give back at that point," says Ms. Foster.

Interested volunteers can go on to the Holiday Helpers website to sign up for the Wrapping Elf or the Delivery Santa shift.


United Way


Feeling bad about that miserly donation you gave to the last United Way office fundraiser? Fear not. Repentance is just a phone call away. You can help the 55-year-old matriarch of the charity world reach its fundraising goal of $116-million (current tally: $85-million) by donating online or over the phone.

If you'd rather give your time over your dime, United Way is happy to take that too. You can volunteer by helping serve meals to the homeless or throw parties for at-risk youth at one of their 200 affiliates across the city.

Sign up early, though. The collective guilt index is projected to skyrocket in the next coming weeks, and there might not be enough room for all the Good Samaritans of the GTA. (Just in the next month alone, United Way is expecting over 500 volunteers.)


Toronto Police Toy Drive


If your heart breaks at the thought of children from fixed-income households who will be in want of presents this holiday season, consider dropping off a toy or two (or five) at one of the three police divisions in Scarborough (41, 42, 43). In its 17th year, this auxiliary officer initiative will be distributing gifts to some 3,000 youth in high-risk neighbourhoods on Dec. 10 (though donations are welcome until Christmas). What they can't get enough of? Toys for boys and girls 10 years old and up. Try the main switchboard for more information on other drop-off locations.


Distress Centre


Are you the resident voice of reason amongst your family and friends? Consider lending your gift of empathy to the volunteer-run non-profit that provides 24-hour crisis support for the emotionally vulnerable. The Centre has three branches in the GTA to choose from (downtown, North York, and Scarborough). It asks for a full year of commitment, at 16 hours a month, or one shift a week.

The 450-volunteer-strong organization just might be the place for you if you are looking for something long term. The crisis line sees a large spike in traffic during Christmas season, one of the most emotionally challenging times of the year.


Yonge Street Mission


The YSM has got your back if you are a recent immigrant, an immobile senior, or an inner-city youth. If you are none of the above, you can pitch in by offering support during the particularly busy December month (think senior banquets and ornament sales). If you happen to be a foot-care nurse or a kitchen hand, you are YSM's new best friend, or so says its website, where you can find more information on other volunteering needs. If you don't have time to volunteer, consider giving to the Mission's food bank. Specific needs include gluten-free pasta, Christmas oranges, baby formula, and halal meat.

Special to The Globe and Mail