Santa Claus Fund
Support program connects kids who have ‘absolutely nothing’ with gift boxes
Syrian boy’s story brings volunteer back for a second year,
There’s a young Syrian boy in a Mississauga school, some 10 or 12 years old, who used to stand up throughout his classes, his gaze focused on the ceiling. Every day, he brought a peanut butter sandwich — a food item schools dissuade due to allergies.
His teacher asked an Arabic-speaking lunch monitor to talk to the boy in his native tongue. When asked why he stayed standing, the boy said the army that used to run his school in Syria told him to never sit in class and always look up — measures to escape any bombings.
When the lunch monitor told the boy he was safe now, the boy replied, “How do I know? I don’t know that. I was just brought here.”
Mary Maarouf, a longtime caseworker with the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), gets teary-eyed when she retells this story. The lunch monitor is one of the clients she supports in her work (and whose identity she cannot share for privacy) and that Syrian boy’s story is just one of thousands of stories of children in need she has heard in her 19 years as an ODSP caseworker.
Its stories like these that draw Maarouf, 59, to charities such as the Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund — an initiative that provides 45,000 underprivileged children, whose families have found themselves in need, with a gift at Christmas.
“I’m imagining the horror this kid has been through and to be in a safe country and not even understand that,” she said.
When that Syrian boy was told he couldn’t bring in peanut butter sandwiches, he told her client that it was all he could eat. His family was reliant on a food bank. “If he can’t eat peanut butter, he can’t eat,” she said.
The Santa Fund has “a precious relationship” with the ODSP office, said Barbara Mrozek, director of Toronto Star charities and philanthropy.
Every year, the ODSP helps identify the kids across Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Pickering and Ajax who are eligible to receive gift boxes. And, every year, members of the ODSP volunteer at the Star’s secret ware- house to help pack these boxes.
This year is the second time Maarouf has volunteered.
“I’ve always been very blessed and lucky to have presents,” she said.
“But I know, doing the work that I do, that a lot of kids have nothing. Absolutely nothing,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
Maarouf says the ODSP office receives hundreds of client requests every year to be a part of the Santa Claus Fund. She has answered phone calls from parents asking to make sure their kids will be on the list, and also thanking them and the Toronto Star.
This year, she’ll bring along her 19year-old daughter and her friends, who are eager to help out, and have the time after the teacher’s strike cancelled their classes at Sheridan College. One thing she’s really learned working at the ODSP, and volunteering at the Santa Fund, is that “No matter how bad your situation is, there’s somebody out there who has it 10 times worse.”
“Kids are kids,” said Maarouf, “It doesn’t matter if they’re Muslim or they’re Christian or whatever their religion. Children love to receive gifts.” If you have been touched by the Santa Claus Fund or have a story to tell, please email email@example.com.
Longtime Ontario Disability Support Program caseworker Mary Maarouf volunteers for the Santa Claus Fund for the second time.