Santa Claus Fund

Sup­port pro­gram con­nects kids who have ‘ab­so­lutely noth­ing’ with gift boxes

Toronto Star - - SMART MONEY & BUSINESS - FA­TIMA SYED STAFF RE­PORTER

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 san­ta­claus­fund@thes­tar.ca.

ANDREW FRAN­CIS WAL­LACE/TORONTO STAR

Long­time On­tario Dis­abil­ity Sup­port Pro­gram case­worker Mary Maarouf vol­un­teers for the Santa Claus Fund for the sec­ond time.

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