ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Children don’t understand when Santa is on a budget, says Krista Koerner.
Koerner is the executive director of the Single Parents Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (SPANL), an organization that helped her in 2005 and 2006 as a single mother of a young daughter.
For nearly 35 years, SPANL has supported single parents in need in various ways, including through its Christmas program, where businesses and individuals help out by sponsoring a family or donating gifts, gift cards or money.
This year, when the organization put out the call for single parents to register, the 250 spots it can accommodate were filled within two hours. An additional 150 families were put on a waitlist, Koerner said.
While she was shocked by the increase in need, it wasn’t altogether unexpected.
“I use our foodbank numbers as a guide, and our food bank numbers have been going up and up and up and up every month for the last year. It’s more and more and more and more, which shows me the dire need in the community,” she said.
On top of the higher demand for their Christmas program, fewer people have offered to sponsor this year, Koerner said.
“Usually by this time of the year, I’ve at least got … the 250 sponsored,” she said, while noting there are still 60 of the 250 families who have not been matched with sponsors.
“Now I worry about piecing together all the other donations. The $40 here, the $20 there, the grocery cards (to) make hampers for the other 150.”
CBCL is an engineering consulting business with an office in St. John’s. They’ve been sponsoring families for at least 15 years, employee Brenda Harding said.
“We can’t help everybody, but we do our best to help at least one family.” – Brenda Harding
“We call our project Operation Christmas Cheer. It’s organized by a team five ladies here in the office, but it’s supported by everybody. Everybody gets involved,” she said.
Why they participate each year is simple, Harding said. It’s because it’s needed.
“I wish it wasn’t needed,” Harding said. “And the girls all agree that we know there’s a need and we just can’t let some little child out there wake up Christmas morning and there not be anything. We can’t help everybody, but we do our best to help at least one family.”
While their focus has always been on supporting families in need and SPANL, there is joy on the faces in the office on delivery day, she said.
And the letters, cards and notes they’ve received in previous years are heartwarming.
“The notes (SPANL) has sent us just to say the family was so touched or it made this little girl’s Christmas, or this little boy was just so excited when he saw … what was under the tree, it’s just a good feeling knowing that somebody who might not have had a great Christmas, was able to have a better Christmas than they might have otherwise,” Harding said.
Social side effects
The government-mandated lockdowns and restrictions imposed on businesses and schools made the impact of COVID-19 much more than the threat of illness.
Amongst other complicating factors, people lost jobs, relationships broke down and the cost of living went up.
And this is compounded by the regular cost of raising a child.
“Maybe your kid is a year older now … he needs bigger clothes,” Koerner said. “Then, all of a sudden, that extra $40, $50 in your budget, that’s gone.”
Christmas is one of the most challenging times of year for single parents, she said.
“(For) some people, (work) closes for Christmas, so they lose that extra shift. With schools closed, some people can’t go to work because of childcare,” she said. “There are all these things in play and of course it all happens at a time when you’re supposed to come up with extra money for gifts and food, which you don’t have.
“Most of these parents depend on the school lunch program to feed their kids. Where are you getting that extra money for two weeks of lunches?”
When asked what they will do if donations don’t start coming in, Koerner pauses for a moment and sighs.
“I’m not going to think about that. I’m an eternal optimist.”
By the grace of God, she said, the organization will pull something together, just like they always have.
“Even if all I’ve got for you is a $50 Sobeys card. It goes a long way. It’s something,” she said.
How the program works
There are three ways to participate in the Christmas program: by sponsoring a family, dropping off items or by donating money or gift cards.
If an individual or business chooses to sponsor, they are matched with an anonymous family which applied and passed SPANL’s screening criteria.
“Like elves, (we) build packages for the families that couldn’t get an official sponsor.” – Krista Koerner
After hearing about what the family needs or enjoys, individuals or businesses can then go out and purchase those things. If a kid loves hockey, for instance, they might buy a jersey of their favourite player or a new stick.
Items that are dropped off are then put together in a hamper.
“Like elves, (we) build packages for the families that couldn’t get an official sponsor,” Koerner said.
“Then we have (donations) where you can give us gift cards, cash, cheque, e-transfer, whatever. And then we go out and say, ‘Smith family, we didn’t get you a sponsor, but we went and bought, or we have $100 in grocery cards, and we got Tommy some pajamas and we got this, that and the other thing.’ So, the families always get something.”
Anyone interested in donating can visit spanl.ca. Alternatively, email money transfers can be sent to [email protected].