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ShoeBox Project spreads Christmas spirit one small package at a time

Shoeboxes are filled with new gifts for women staying in shelters are part of "The Shoebox Project" in Toronto on December 19, 2012.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Big gestures can come in small boxes.

The smaller the better, insists Caroline Mulroney Lapham, weaving in stocking feet around mountains of gift-wrapped shoeboxes in her family's basement.

Each 12-by-6-inch container holds a wealth of tiny presents, from wands of mascara and movie passes to delicately scented tea and coloured nail polish, everything priced under $50, but meant to add up to a priceless experience for both the givers and the receivers.

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"The amount provides a guideline so that each box can be of equivalent value," explains the daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who along with sisters-in-law Jessica, Katy and Vanessa Mulroney, founded the ShoeBox Project in Toronto last year as a way of helping women who are spending the holiday in shelters.

"The point to the shoebox is that it offers an easy vehicle for delivery," she says, using her iPad to scan a spreadsheet teeming with addresses of facilities she will visit later in the day, bearing carloads of the presents.

The ShoeBox Project has now become a national concern, with women in other major Canadian cities including Calgary, Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver rallying to engage in the project. And corporations are joining in, with Holt Renfrew and Dundee Realty recently picking the ShoeBox Project for their employee gift drives, and other businesses like McDonald's, Cineplex-Odeon, L'Oréal, Winners and L'Occitane donating product.

The idea for the project originally came from Jessica, whose mother had organized something similar in Montreal. The formula was simple: ask your girlfriends for help and watch the boxes fill up with female-friendly goodies. Inspired, the Mulroney women adopted the same approach. But in their case the boxes didn't just fill up, they multiplied.

"We originally asked for 156 boxes – one each for every resident of the Red Door Family Shelter, and we worried we wouldn't make our goal," Mulroney Lapham says. "But when it was all finished, we had 400 boxes. It happened without any publicity, just word of mouth and e-mail."

This year, the ShoeBox Project has quadrupled its output, amassing more than 1,600 boxes in Toronto alone.

"We want to brighten the lives of these women over the holidays with these gifts, which are little luxuries, things that women appreciate but wouldn't splurge on at times of difficulty," Mulroney Lapham says. "When you're leaving your home in the middle of the night, you're usually not taking your hand lotion or your makeup with you."

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"As you can imagine, these gifts are very much appreciated by the staff who always work hard to make the holidays special for clients at Women's Residence, as well as for those women who are supported in their recent housing through outreach efforts," says Patricia Anderson, who manages the City of Toronto's Shelter and Housing Division.

The goal is build the charity, adding more cities to the project for next year. Mulroney Lapham has just hired someone to get the ShoeBox Project on Facebook – "I really didn't have a clue," she allows. As for Twitter, that's her brother Ben Mulroney's department.

"It helps that he has 43,000 Twitter followers," she says of the CTV personality.

Once the shoeboxes are assembled, volunteers drop them off at businesses that have offered to serve as depots for the DIY charity, including Calphalon, Dundee Realty and Royal Lepage offices around the GTA.

"Next year," says Mulroney Lapham, "we want a moving company to get involved. I think we might need it."

To donate to the ShoeBox Project, visit toronto.ca/housing/wishlist.htm

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About the Author

Deirdre Kelly is a features writer for The Globe and Mail. She is the author of the best-selling Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books). More

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