Holiday cheer united with community spirit over the weekend.
A partnership was forged between United Way Simcoe Muskoka and Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions to offer the second Holiday with a Hero event on Saturday, which benefited 80 vulnerable children from Simcoe County.
“We have volunteers from police forces, from paramedics, from firefighters, and from the military; they’re volunteering their time and they’re here because they want to give back to their community and support children and youth," said Brian Shelley, chief executive and philanthropy officer at United Way in Simcoe Muskoka.
First responders and community heroes were paired with children — equipped with smiles, holiday shopping lists, and a $150 Walmart gift card — and took to the aisles in search of the perfect gifts. In addition to buying for others, each child was asked to purchase something for themselves.
Local heroes from the Orillia Fire Department, Barrie Police Service, South Simcoe Police Service, Ontario Provincial Police, Simcoe County EMS, and Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden all took part in the day's event.
“We took a two-year hiatus for COVID, so certainly we know that the emotional health of children and youth has been impacted over the last two years, so we’re so excited to bring this event back for some of our community’s most vulnerable young people,” Shelley said.
“There are other Holiday with a Hero events across the States and some in Canada that are spearheaded by United Way. We’re very excited to carry on that tradition and bring it to our community here.”
Jasmine Botter, communications coordinator at Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions said, “the event offers an amazing opportunity for children to become acquainted with the ‘heroes’ of our community, putting in their presence a strong role model while allowing them to interact in a way that shows them they are as human as they are. It also gives the children an opportunity to show generosity to their loved ones which is a valuable experience on its own.
"I'm sure they can't wait to greet their families with the wonderful holiday gifts their heroes helped them shop for today," said Botter.
Christmas cheer arrived early, as children and their heroes pushed shopping carts through Walmart and paid for their purchases. Inspired by the sack Santa Claus uses to deliver toys on Christmas Eve, community members made sure each child was equipped with their own sack to collect their purchases.
With over 24 years of experience in the Canadian Armed Forces, Lt.- Col. and Commanding Officer, Francesco Messina, explained people in his unit were eager to volunteer for the event. Twenty people volunteered to help children complete their shopping, and at least 12 more volunteered to drive trucks and assisted with transporting the gifts, he explained.
“I think doing this... really helps, it’s great helping those young kids… there’s still kids needing support and such, and it’s great to be able to give some of our time,” he said.
Once the gifts were purchased, and the lists were checked twice, the children joined a procession of emergency vehicles as they went from Walmart in Barrie to the YMCA in Innisfil for a catered pancake breakfast.
United Way Simcoe Muskoka volunteers — and Mr. and Mrs. Claus — were ready to assist the children as they enjoyed a bouncy castle, crafts, cookie decorating, and other games. In an effort that would make Santa’s elves proud, volunteers wrapped all of the gifts that were purchased while children played and received temporary glitter tattoos.
Acting Chief of South Simcoe Police Service, John Van Dyke, said the event is "all about" the kids.
"We’re just so happy to be here in support of this event, and support of the kids and our communities," said Van Dyke. "Everybody has the right to be happy at Christmas and to have a great Christmas and, for kids that are a little bit less fortunate, anything that we can do to help them out so that they can experience a wonderful Christmas is important to us.”
Of course, honouring the memory of constables Morgan Russell and Devon Michael Northrup of the South Simcoe Police Service — to whom the Holiday with a Hero event was dedicated — reminded heroes, organizers, and volunteers alike to cherish each and every day.
After a moment of silence in honour of Constables Russell and Northrup, Michael Clark, chief of the Orillia Fire Department said, “We think it’s a great event. A real tear-jerking event, to tell you the truth.”
Clark and the Orillia fire department presented a cheque to the United Way for $1,400.
'We’ve had great participation, and they collected money as well to donate towards (the Holiday with a Hero event). I’m very happy with the support that we’ve gotten from our people," said Clark.
As the 2nd Holiday with a Hero event in Simcoe Muskoka wrapped up, Chief Kimberley Greenwood of Barrie Police Services said, “It’s wonderful to see all the work that Family Connexions and the United Way do to give back and support families and children in our community and this is another perfect example.”
Leah Wells, marketing and communications specialist for United Way Simcoe Muskoka, said excitement was in the air.
“There was this incredible air of excitement from [the] moment everyone arrived to shop, through to the very end of the party," said Wells. "Watching the way the children and heroes interacted throughout the morning was really special and I think these kids will remember today for a long time to come. We are grateful to the heroes, volunteers, and sponsors who came together to make this event happen.”