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Giving back starts at home for Whistler charities

Busy holiday season for local non-profit organizations



With only a couple days before Christmas to go, community outreach coordinator Jackie Dickinson was still fielding last-minute calls from people hoping to make a local family's holiday season a little brighter.

It's that generosity that has led to the biggest year yet for Whistler Community Services Society's (WCSS) Christmas Hamper program, with 34 local families in need benefitting. The program sees financially restricted families matched with a donor, who fills out the hamper based on the family's Christmas wish list. Dickinson said WCSS asked donors to compile a hamper filled with $350 of goods — typically made up of clothing, gift cards, toys and food — but that Whistlerites almost always go above and beyond, with most hampers reaching the $500 or higher mark.

"I'm really inspired by it," she said. "Even though we have the opportunity to do this program every December, I still get shivers thinking about the amazing things people do in the community."

Because the program is completely anonymous, donors don't get to see how their charitable efforts have helped a local family, but Dickinson and the "little elves" at Whistler Community Services see it firsthand.

"I remember seeing a mom this holiday season walk in and we passed her a hamper and she just had this look of shock and disbelief," said Dickinson. "She had no expectations and was grateful for whatever she was going to get, and she was just in tears. She couldn't even really communicate how grateful she was."

The hamper drive is just one of the many charitable initiatives that take place in the community during the holiday season. Over at the Whistler Food Bank, this time of year means a steady stream of donations pouring in, including thousands of dollars from resort businesses that have recognized what an essential service the food bank provides. Mountain FM raised $7,000 for the Whistler and Pemberton banks earlier this month at its annual Christmas dinner, while Whistler Question contributed more than $1,000 through its Gingerbread House Party. The Restaurant Association of Whistler (RAW) also donated another $5,000 thanks to a record-breaking fundraising year.

"When we sat at a roundtable discussing who would benefit most from this, the food bank was the No. 1 answer," explained RAW president Amy Huddle. "We're in the business of feeding people, so it only makes sense that we then donate some money to the food bank."

Not including the month of December, there have been 2,182 visits to the food bank this year, including 422 visits by children, according to Whistler Food Bank coordinator Sara Jennings.

A growing trend in 2014, Jennings said, has been an increase in users who have suffered some form of long-term injury or illness.

"In general, a lot of people we've seen lately have more long-term complications that make it more challenging for them to have full-time employment," she said.

At a time of year when the food bank sees an increase in non-perishable food donations, Jennings said it's important to remember all of the ways the community can give back.

"Always the No. 1 thing on any food bank's list is money because that allows us the flexibility to get what we need at that time and prioritize fresh food, plus our dollar stretches further than the average shopper's," she said, adding that the food bank also has more volunteer offers in the holiday season than they can manage, encouraging people to consider donating their time during other periods of need in the resort.

At a time of year when getting to be with loved ones is so important, it should also be an opportunity to think about the place you call home, said Community Foundation of Whistler executive director Carol Coffey.

"Christmas time is when everyone is thinking about being with friends and family and we give gifts and show our appreciation for them, but it's equally important to think about the community because the community supports us all and helps create a sense of belonging and a sense of identity," she said.

The foundation received $145,500 in donations this year, including one of $100,000 to establish the Kelty and Riley Dennehy Scholarship Fund, awarded to one male and female student each year who stand out in ways that go beyond academics.

While philanthropy is a year-round endeavour for both local rotary clubs, that didn't stop the Rotary Club of Whistler Millennium from inviting Santa to the resort this holiday season, raising $3,000 at various appearances for the Lil'wat First Nation and the organization's international exchange program for a deserving Whistler high school student. The rotary's Toy Lending Club has also taken off since launching a year ago, with 25 members and over 300 toys that families can take home for two weeks at a time for an annual fee.

"It's very heartwarming to see. It's just a great community thing," said club president Thomas Christensen.

After living in nine different countries, Christensen said there's something special here that makes Whistler unique.

"The feeling of community that my family and I have experienced in the last year and a half here is like nothing I've experienced in my life before," he said.

Christensen wasn't alone in his sentiment.

"I live in the most wonderful place because people are engaged, they love to do fundraisers and take care of people and get involved with non-profits," said Rotary Club of Whistler Millennium member Patrick McCurdy.

"There's a huge culture of volunteerism here, and it's all done with a great spirit. We're lucky. It's a great place to be."

Dec. 31 is the last day you can make a donation in 2014 and get a charitable deduction.