By Brett Browne, Camrose Booster
This Christmas will bring a different experience for eight Augustana students. They will be leaving behind the warmth and comfort of their traditional holiday celebrations to help bring the spirit of Christmas to those less fortunate than themselves.
The students will be travelling to Vancouver and spending Christmas day handing out gifts and spreading good cheer amoungst the residents of the city’s notorious downtown east side.
The initiative, called "Christmas Presence", is the creation of Carmelle Mohr, a second year Global Development Studies student at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta.
Mohr, who is from Vancouver, says she has spent a good deal of time working with people in the downtown east side and had always wanted to do some¬thing to help those living on the street at Christmas time.
"On Christmas day nothing happens there. Most of the shelters are closed," explains Mohr, who decided last year to organize her own project. Last October she started collecting donations and enlisted the help of the Camrose community.
"People immediately got involved – Augustana was in and so were local high schools and churches," she relates. "Within a couple of months we were able to gather together 250 gift packages and more than 200 tins of baking that we were able to give to the people."
After two hectic months of gathering donations, Mohr and about 25 Vancouver area friends and acquaintances headed for the downtown east side on Christmas morning. Mohr and her group set up stations in a couple of locations and, in groups of three or four, fanned out across the 18 square blocks of the poverty-stricken neighbourhood.
Like the name suggests, Christmas Presence is about more than just dropping off gifts, it is about connecting with people at a special time of the year. Those involved spent the entire day interacting with people on the street.
"It wasn’t just hand-outs, it was quality time spent with people," explains Mohr who says the reaction to the program was encouraging, especially when the residents realized that these ambitious young people weren’t just there to drop off donations.
"Most people were very surprised because that was the first Christmas in a long time that anyone had actually come down to do anything," she explains. "The response was pretty amazing with the individuals that I met. They were really thankful and really talkative, but when they realized that we weren’t just there to give them a gift and leave – that we were actually there to chill and to hang out with them – their attitude changed and there was almost a trust established, which is really rare down there."
Mohr says it was a pretty eclectic group of people that accompanied her for Christmas Presence last year, and everyone reacted differently to what they saw and heard. "It was a pretty changing experience for everyone involved," she relates. "I think a lot of people see the situation rather than the people themselves."
Mohr says Vancouver’s downtown east side is a place of tremendous poverty, rife with crime, and overburdened with alcohol and drug abuse. However, it is also a close knit society of individuals who reach out and care for each other. "It has the strongest sense of community that I’ve ever seen anywhere, even in Camrose which I feel has a great community," she states.
Mohr says she was overwhelmed with the outpouring of generosity that Christmas Presence received from Camrose last year. She is hoping that this year’s effort will just as successful and she is excited that seven of her Augustana classmates have decided to accompany her back to Vancouver.
"I think that speaks volumes about Augustana, that seven students are willing to take their Christmas and spend it with people that they don’t know," she explains.
Like last year, Mohr says Augustana is leading the effort to collect donations for Christmas Presence. The program was promoted at the Stille Nacht Christmas concert this past weekend. She says the Student Chaplaincy Program at the school has also adopted the program and is working to support it on campus. Plus, local churches and schools are involved again this year.
"It has definitely got a lot bigger than I ever thought it could," she says.
Mohr and the seven students that will accompany her to Vancouver this Christmas are planning a special benefit concert for Christmas Presence at Merchants Tea and Coffee House this Saturday, December 5, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. The students will be offering a night of music and will speak about why they have decided to spend Christmas on the streets of Vancouver. Mohr will also provide some insight about the downtown east side and speak about Christmas Presence. Admission to the concert is the donation of a gift item or monetary contribution.
Anyone interested in donation can also drop off items at a collection depot set up in the lobby of the Faith and Life Centre at the Augustana Capus (outside the chapel). Those with baking or monetary donations can contact Mohr via e-mail at: email@example.com
Mohr says that donations of warm items such as toques, gloves, mittens, or socks, are appreciated. (All donations should be new items) Cash donations will used to supplement the gift packages. Mohr says last year some of the donated money was used to purchase Tim Horton’s gift certificates.
"That way they can go and get a meal and that’s a luxury they do not have," she explains.
Mohr says she is amazed by the generosity the Camrose community has shown toward a group of people in a city hundreds of miles away. She says she is thankful Camrose doesn’t have its own version of the downtown east side, but there are still people in need here and she hopes her efforts will inspire more people.