The Spirit of Christmas is alive and well in Fenelon Falls

By Geoff Coleman

The staff and students of Fenelon Falls Secondary School are no strangers to charitable causes. Like many schools, the FFSS community supports numerous international fundraising campaigns and, at one point, supported more foster children through the Foster Parents Plan than any other school in Canada. Amnesty International also benefitted from Fenelon Falls and area student generosity, as did Operation Christmas Child, the Terry Fox Run, the 30-hour Famine and the United Way.

Grass-roots student groups like SAVE advocated for violence-free lives for women, and individual classes collected and donated school supplies to classes in Costa Rica, and baseball hats to shade students in relentlessly-sunny Kenya.

At the local level, horticulture classes donated vegetables from their gardens to the Fenelon Falls Food Bank, and the school at large had a hand in raising money to buy an accessible van for the family of a special needs student in the school.

In the last two decades, one fund-raising initiative in particular —known as The Spirit of Christmas — has become a rallying point for students, staff and local businesses.

Educational assistant Susan Sainsbury is the self-effacing but tireless force behind the effort. “My inspiration to start The Spirit of Christmas was the students. I would notice students coming to school with the same clothing on, or not having a lunch.”

She then surmised that some students likely didn’t have much of a Christmas, and from that simple observation, a tradition entering its 19th year was born. Sainsbury estimates that over this time, 475 families have benefited from The Spirit of Christmas, which provides food and gifts to families in the school community.

Obviously, a program of this scale doesn’t just pop up in December —   it is in motion throughout the school year. Sainsbury points out, “We raise money with car washes, dances, a Santa day BBQ, and donations from businesses.

“Birch Point Marina, Butterfly Boutique, Barn & Bunkie, Armstrong Construction and Fehr Basement have provided assistance from the very beginning,” adds Sainsbury. When Canadian Tire still used Canadian Tire ”money,” the Fenelon store would match any collected in classes and donated to the cause.

The Spirit of Christmas does not give out cash. Instead, after a family that might benefit from the program comes to the attention of Sainsbury and her team, the volunteers make contact with the family to gauge their interest in becoming involved. While the offer is occasionally turned down, a conversation usually follows where they provide Sainsbury and the other volunteers with a wish list, and the team does its best to accommodate it. “We cross-reference with other charities so there is no double dipping,” Sainsbury notes.

While some families elect to come and pick up the gift hamper at school, usually Sainsbury and a few others deliver the packages right before Christmas. Kelli Chiasson, a now-retired FFSS teacher, assisted with deliveries one year, and was struck by the need some families exhibited.

“There were so many families involved, it made me wonder how many more out there were not fortunate enough to have access to something like The Spirit of Christmas. I’ll never forget the faces of the recipients, filled with relief and gratitude that they had something — gifts and dinner — to give to their children.”

For her part, Susan Sainsbury says she has collected many touching stories over the nearly 20 years she has visited families at Christmas. She can point to many parents overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers, and to countless children and teenagers excited to have something cool for the first time, but the interaction that defines I Sprit of Christmas for her came “when I delivered to a home and a student simply said, ‘I didn’t know anyone cared.’”

Similar to when an athlete becomes a coach because someone took the time to coach them when they were young, Sainsbury is justifiably proud when people who were on the receiving end of the process in their youth contribute to it as adults.

“The Spirit of Christmas has enjoyed amazing year-after-year support, and the most important kind comes from former students that are now in their 20s and 30s and make contributions. So many past students reach out and give what they can. There are young adults that received from The Spirit of Christmas who now later in life add to the magic when they contact me and wish to donate.”

When asked what has been the most rewarding part of The Spirit of Christmas, Sainsbury says, “There are many proud moments, like when your 11 year-old granddaughter says,’I don’t need anything for Christmas, Grams. How about you make a donation to the Spirit of Christmas?’ Or, when a friend’s daughter, Colette, gives up her birthday money to The Spirit of Christmas. It is occasions like these that help me realize the importance of community and teaching our younger generation.”

1 Comment

  1. diane ward says:

    Susan Sainsbury is the best. Biggest heart, ALWAYS puts kids first. A fine role model for staff members and students alike.
    She continues the charitable spirit of FFSS that included (some say: began with) Ish Lal. Ish taught Math. He started the Foster Parents program at FFSS, and at one time, the school sponsored more children than any other organization. From Ish’s obituary:

    “Despite his own underprivileged upbringing in India, he fostered a passion for philanthropy. If an organization did not exist, he would create one. As a teacher he founded the Foster Parents Plan Club (later renamed to Plan International) at FFSS to inspire the students to give and make a difference in other people’s lives. In 1987, at the Plan International 50th Anniversary televised gala event, both Ishwar and the FFSS club president were recognized as the school sponsoring the most number, 33, of foster children around the world.”

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