It was 38 years ago on Christmas when Penny Burns received an anonymous gift.
Burns was a single mom living in an apartment in Vancouver with her two-year-old son. In the absence of a fireplace, she put snacks for Santa and his reindeer in the hall so that their home wouldn’t be missed on Christmas night. The next morning, there was a basket outside the apartment with wrapped gifts. She unwrapped a hairbrush, nail polish, candles and more, and at the bottom of the basket laid a Christmas card that said, “From your friends at 1213,” the address of her building.
The kindness of the gift stuck with her, and years later it became the inspiration behind bringing the Shoebox Project to Muskoka. The project encourages people to fill shoeboxes with $50 worth of small luxury gifts for women experiencing homelessness and poverty.
“When some random people who I would see but never really talked to gave me a gift with no strings attached, it just made me feel like there’s good in the world and there’s a reason to put one step in front of the other,” Burns said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with the shoeboxes is [give] that very feeling. Even though your life might feel like you’re not going anywhere, it’s just something to let you know that there are people that don’t know you but do care about you.”
Years after the anonymous gift, Burns saw a TV interview about the Shoebox Project. It brought back the feelings from the Christmas gift she had received and, a few years later, she mentioned the project to friends Joanne Buie and Barb Baldwin, who decided to work with her to bring the project to Muskoka. They started out by setting a goal of 50 boxes, but they soon found the need was greater than they expected.
“We were really under equipped,” she said. “[We started to] really realize how much poverty there is and how much need there is in the community. I think we’re all kind of blind to that.”
The goal of 50 boxes grew into a total of 354 shoeboxes wrapped and stored in Penny’s basement for the first year of the Muskoka project back in 2015. The project has produced more than 3,414 shoeboxes in the past four years with last year’s total coming in at about 1,300 boxes. Heading into the fifth year of the Muskoka Shoebox Project, the goal is 1,325 filled shoeboxes. Over 40 volunteers and a new larger warehouse will allow the group to deliver the shoeboxes to 18 organizations in Muskoka that help women in need.
Burns said that while some people may feel Muskoka doesn’t need this kind of project, she encourages them to look around and see their neighbours and others in their community who may be struggling. Throughout their time working on the Shoebox Project, Burns and her colleagues have learned about the widespread issues with poverty in the region as well as the many causes behind it.
“It can be caused from the high cost of living, it can be through mental illness, through addictions. Sometimes through a combination of bad luck that happens in a family, like somebody loses a job and then there’s an illness,” Burns said. “We all go about our lives and don’t really see those things. When you really look hard, you just realize how much [need there] is.”
The experience has been humbling and rewarding, she said, especially considering the large number of volunteers and donors that have contributed. Some donors go the extra mile with their boxes, adding personal touches like colour matching the items in the box or writing long personal notes in which they share their own journey.
“It is as rewarding to the people doing it as it is to the people receiving it,” Burns said. “It’s a project that is done locally, so we know that these all get gifted to women in Muskoka. It’s a small way to really encourage somebody to try their hardest because hopefully their life will take an upswing.”
Burns encourages those who want to participate to be thoughtful about the content of the boxes and to join forces with friends or neighbours if the $50 value of the box is too high. She said their motto for the boxes are “something warm, something sparkly and something chocolate,” adding that people also often include items like journals, card games and lotion. The team also tries to encourage donors to add an inspirational note, so that, even if the boxes are anonymous, they’re more personal to the recipient. While the boxes may seem like a small gesture, the impact is big.
“A couple weeks ago, a young girl came up to us,” Burns said. “She had tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘Four years ago, I received one of your boxes.’ That would have been the first year that we started it.”
The girl explained that, at the time, she was a young mom that had just moved to the area and her husband was injured and couldn’t work. They had no money for Christmas, but she received one of their boxes. Even though it was four years later, the girl stood there and recited the contents of the box to them. She said there was a deck of cards, a hairbrush and a journal along with a Walmart gift card that she used to buy her husband a gift. Just like the anonymous present stuck with Burns, the shoebox stuck with the girl.
“They do mean something,” Burns said. “Random acts of kindness mean a lot.”
To participate in the Muskoka Shoebox Project, fill and wrap a Shoebox (top and bottom have to be wrapped separately) and drop it off at a location in your community by Dec. 1. See a list of drop-off locations below. Community members interested in donating a shoebox or participating in other ways can visit the Shoebox Project website for more information.
- Becker Shoes, 27 Manitoba St, Bracebridge, ON P1L 1S4
- Muskoka Natural Food Market, 229 Manitoba St, Bracebridge, ON P1L 1S2
- Royal LePage, 100 Westmall Rd, Bracebridge, ON P1L 1Z1
- Hair Energy, 100 Muskoka Rd S, Gravenhurst, ON P1P 1X3
- Royal LePage, 1100A Muskoka Rd S #1, Gravenhurst, ON P1P 1K9
- Becker Shoes, The Huntsville Place Mall, 70 King William St, Huntsville, ON P1H 2A5
- Royal LePage, 100-395 Centre St N, Huntsville, ON P1H 2P5
- Johnston & Daniel Rushbrooke Realty, 118 Medora St, Port Carling, ON P0B 1J0
- Muskoka Lakes Public Library, 69 Joseph St, Port Carling, ON P0B 1J0
- Johnston & Daniel Rushbrooke Realty, 3133 Muskoka District Road 169 #1, Bala, ON P0C 1A0