Thanks to longtime volunteers, SHARE's toy shop program runs like a well-oiled machine

Now in its 50th year, SHARE helps 22,000 people in the Tri-Cities area.

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When Claire MacLean, SHARE Family & Community Services executive director, says that the group’s toy shop is run “like a military operation,” she’s not kidding.

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“We’ve got people who have been doing this for decades,” she said. “It’s really lovely to see them take newer volunteers under their wing and walk them through how things are done.”

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Now in its 50th year, SHARE helps 22,000 people in the Tri-Cities area, including Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore and Belcarra, and New Westminster, through its year-round food bank and holiday hamper and toy shop programs. The organization grew out of a children’s clothing exchange in Gertie Grosser’s basement. The Coquitlam resident died in 2020.

Last year, the group provided toys/gifts to over 1,100 children from 0 to 17 years of age and gave out over 820 holiday food hampers. Donations to The Province’s Empty Stocking Fund help make the aid possible.

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One of SHARE’s longtime food bank and toy shop volunteers, Jan Richen is a Burnaby resident who has been with the non-profit for nearly 20 years.

“Yep, the rules don’t change,” said Richen when asked about the militarization of the toy shop. “We’ve got it down to a science now. Nobody needs to ask anybody anything. We all know what we’re doing.”

The volunteers bundle up about $50 worth of donated toys into plastic bags. Parents can choose a bag for each child depending on their interests.

As with other bureaus, finding toys for older kids is a problem.

“When people want to buy a gift, they think of a cute little five-year-old,” Richen said. “Nobody thinks about the teen.”

Instead of trying to anticipate the wants of this notoriously difficult cohort, SHARE provides gift cards for the local mall.

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The SHARE clients that Richen sees are grateful for the help.

“There’ve been a few people that come in and they just are sobbing and saying, ‘My children would not have Christmas if it wasn’t for you. You do such a great job.’ ”

Over the years, SHARE has welcomed more newcomers to Canada.

“A lot of our people are refugees who have just come from a camp somewhere and been dropped off here and they really don’t have any idea what’s going on,” Richen said. “So it’s kind of a whirlwind for them. They’re really grateful. You know that you’re giving kids a Christmas. That’s the reason for doing it.”

“The Tri-Cities area has one of the largest growing populations of newcomers across the province,” MacLean said. “Overall, our food bank numbers are up 50 per cent from the same time last year. Some of those additional clients are newcomers and refugees, but they’re also people that are from the area and are also needing extra support.”

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She anticipates a higher need this year for SHARE’s holiday food bank services: “We’re focused on giving people as much choice as possible and give them as much dignity in the process as we can.”

Along with providing prepacked hampers, “we now focus on a shopping model where people select the items that are most appropriate for their culture and their family. And then we also provide gift cards so that they can use them at a local grocery store to select the items that are most useful to them.”

And this year, SHARE is again co-sponsoring a Christmas tree and toy donation program with the Coquitlam Centre, something it wasn’t been able to do because of COVID-19.

Richen missed 2020 because of the pandemic but the 77-year-old was back at slinging toys in 2021.

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“It’s lots of fun because it’s the same group of ladies that I’ve been doing it with all these years,” she said. “We just really enjoy it.”

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