MONTREAL – In the basement of her grandparents’ home, Katherine Velan and dozens of volunteers are working tirelessly.
They unpack thousands of bottles of shampoo and conditioner, sort through gloves and scarves and separate lipsticks and eyeshadows.
They place these household items in a shoebox, wrap them up, then give them over to various women’s shelters across Montreal.
“They feel like it’s a hug when they open it up,” Velan told Global News.
“It’s probably the only hug they are getting, the only gift they are getting, and it’s nice to know someone thinks about you.”
Velan got the idea for her charity The Shoebox Project from her aunt.
Just over a decade ago, her aunt started bringing bags of treats to women’s shelters around Christmas time.
Ten years ago, Katherine and a friend filled about 30 shoeboxes with everything from toothpaste to chocolate and donated the boxes to a Montreal shelter.
The next year, that effort grew to 500 boxes.
A few years ago, the charity expanded across the country.
Now, the organization will deliver 1,500 shoeboxes to 32 charities across Montreal and 22,000 boxes across Canada.
Velan said she relies on a huge team of volunteers to help her prepare the boxes.
“A lot of big companies donate products,” she said.
“This weekend, we will have volunteers all day and they will be filling the 1,000 boxes and wrapping them. We’ll get another 500 from people who make boxes on their own.”
Velan said the boxes are filled with a mixture of everyday essentials, and some treats.
“A lot of the boxes have toothbrushes, soap, deodorant, gloves and socks,” she said.
“We had necklaces donated last year, which were great. This year, one woman made 30 scarves that she knitted herself so they will go in the boxes. It’s something that you don’t need everyday, that is kind of a special treat to open.”
About 60 women will receive a shoebox this year; the holidays are especially tough for women living in shelters.
“For them it means loneliness and emptiness,” said Ann-Gael Whiteman, who works at the Rue Des Femmes shelter downtown.
“Most of the time, they don’t speak to their families and their children and we can see now they are starting to say ‘I hate Christmas.'”
Rue des Femmes throws a holiday party every year on Dec. 24 and Whiteman said the gifts are important because they make the holidays a little brighter for women in need.
“When you give them something, that makes them feel that they matter,” she explained.
“It’s like you recognize them as a human being, as a woman, and not a homeless person.”
Velan said that, while it seems as though the shoeboxes are filled with fairly basic items, she knows it’s a huge deal to those who receive them.
“This is the only gift they get,” she told Global News.
“It means everything. What they own is in a shopping bag.”
Velan admitted the Shoebox Project is a lot of work, but said she can’t imagine ever stopping.
‘It’s amazing. It’s a gift for me, not only for them,” she said.
“You got to do your part, and this is the part that I chose. It’s karma. You have to give back. My life is pretty good, so you have to give back.”
Velan hopes the boxes remind women that they’re not alone around the holidays.