These elves know city’s poor youth

Santa Claus Fund work­ers are on front lines of Toronto’s child poverty prob­lem

Toronto Star - - GREATER TORONTO - LAURA BEESTON STAFF RE­PORTER With files from Lau­rie Mon­se­braaten. If you have been touched by the Santa Claus Fund or have a story to tell, please email san­ta­claus­fund@thes­tar.ca.

On one late Oc­to­ber shift, there is a strik­ing sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the vol­un­teers who are pack­ing chil­dren’s ham­pers for the Santa Claus Fund: they are all teach­ers or health care work­ers, and they have all been on the front lines to wit­ness Toronto’s child poverty prob­lem.

“Many peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that in the city, we’ve got kids who don’t even have a lunch,” says Kathie Keat­ing, 60.

“I know those sto­ries. I’ve seen those sto­ries. I see those kids who come in with a slice of bread in the bot­tom of their knap­sack. Kids that say, ‘Oh, Christ­mas was just an­other day. My mom was at work.’ ”

The teach­ers are el­bow-to-el­bow to­day, sort­ing, pack­ing and pil­ing 45,000 boxes for the kids who re­ally need them.

The chil­dren come from fam­i­lies who are on so­cial as­sis­tance or dis­abil­ity sup­port; fam­i­lies you might con­sider as the work­ing poor. They are screened through one of our 133 com­mu­nity ser­vice agen­cies reg­is­tered with the char­ity.

Barbara Switzer spent 38 years as a pub­lic health nurse for the city, serv­ing in both homes and shel­ters. “I’ve seen the types of need that are in Toronto,” she says. “I was in the down­town core.”

Things might look OK from the out­side, but peo­ple are re­ally strug­gling, Switzer says. “Af­ter they pay rent, they have very lit­tle left. They’re work­ing maybe two or three jobs, you know? The taxi driver, the per­son in your lo­cal gro­cery store, who­ever: Many peo­ple can’t make ends meet and I don’t think that peo­ple re­al­ize that.”

Re­tired for four years now, Switzer says she still re­mem­bers all those fam­i­lies. “They were won­der­ful.”

She also re­mem­bers homes with no fur­ni­ture, with cock­roaches and bed­bugs. “It’s hard to be­lieve here in Toronto we have chil­dren liv­ing in such con­di­tions,” she said, shak­ing her head. “It’s im­por­tant we re­mem­ber the strug­gle they live through.”

Toronto re­mains the child poverty cap­i­tal of Canada.

A2015 re­port found 28.6 per cent of our chil­dren are liv­ing in low-in­come house­holds.

In 2011, the low-in­come mea­sure for a sin­gle per­son in Toronto was $16,456 and $39,912 for a two-par­ent fam­ily with two chil­dren un­der the age of 16.

Poverty rates among Toronto chil­dren also out­pace other age groups, last year’s re­port found.

Switzer has been with the Santa Claus Fund for a few years now. She and her hus­band also do de­liv­er­ies, so she can re­count sto­ries of par­ents with tears in their eyes af­ter gift­ing the boxes to their chil­dren. “They don’t want to ad­mit they couldn’t do things, you know? But ev­ery­one needs a help­ing hand some­times . . . Any of us could be there at any time.”

Cathy Glass is also among the “flock of teach­ers elf-ing the ware­house.” Glass, from Bramp­ton, is re­tired and has vol­un­teered with both the pack­ing and de­liv­ery of gift boxes for Toronto’s needy chil­dren. Last year, her hus­band wore a Santa hat while she donned rein­deer horns.

Glass re­mem­bers one boy in par­tic­u­lar, who was “all smiles” when she gave him his gift box. As they were leav­ing, how­ever, he came back out of his house. The cou­ple looked at each other. “Oh no,” they thought.

But the boy’s fa­ther came up be­hind him: “He just wants to take a pic­ture with Santa and his rein­deer.”

BERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STAR

Vol­un­teer Kathie Keat­ing sorts gifts that will be packed in­side Santa Claus Fund boxes, which will be de­liv­ered to kids who re­ally need them.

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