For Calgary’s homeless, Christmas isn’t necessarily the happiest time of the year.
By Sara Francis
“It’s a reminder that they can’t be with their friends or family, sometimes because of mental health issues or drugs and alcohol,” said Jordan Hamilton, manager of external relations for the Calgary Drop-In Centre.
About 1,000 people at the Calgary Drop-In Centre will wake up to a stuffed stocking this Christmas — thanks in part to the Sock Tree Program at St. Michael Catholic Community.
“Waking up Christmas morning to a stocking at the foot of your bed is a reminder you are not alone, that people care. Ultimately that understanding can be a catalyst to take that next step in their life, and get the help they need for their mental illness or addictions, which ultimately may reunite them with their loved ones,” said Hamilton.
Every Advent, Dolores and Allen Fitzsimmons stuff stockings to bring a little cheer to Calgary’s homeless. The couple started setting up the sock tree at St. Michael Catholic Community 28 years ago. Last year, they collected 337 stuffed stockings.
“Every year (the sock tree) has gone up, every single year,” said the 83-year-old mother of seven. “It’s more than knowing who God is and how we’re loved, but how do we reach out to others.”
The sock tree was set up in time for the first Sunday of Advent and remained up until the third Sunday. Parishioners were invited to fill the stockings with small items such as mitts, toques, socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, granola bars, sealed candy, band-aids, bar soap, and disposable razors.
“It’s amazing what some people put in. I have seen stuff that I’m sure they’ve spent $30 stuffing it. Some people who know and understand will be very generous,” said Mrs. Fitzsimmons.
“It’s the only Christmas presents we buy,” chuckling while referring to her husband, Allen. “We don’t buy presents for each other, we have more than we need.”
Mr. Fitzsimmons built the wood-frame tree. He drops off the stockings to the Calgary Drop-In Centre with a group of parish volunteers each year. The Drop-In Centre serves the city’s homeless through a shelter program, health services, counseling, and skills training.
“If you’ve never been to the Calgary Drop-In Centre before, I’d encourage you to go down. They’ll give you a tour. It’s incredible,” said Mrs. Fitzsimmons.
She got the idea for the sock tree while visiting a Franciscan-run retreat house in Arizona where she filled a stocking for a six-year-old girl on an Indian Reserve. She brought the idea home with her and successfully approached the Drop-In Centre and St Michael’s. Since then, other parishes in the city have set up their own sock trees through the years. Former St. Michael’s Pastor Fr. Julian Studden asked one of his parishioners to liaise with the Fitzsimmons to set up the sock tree at St. Albert the Great just last year.
The Fitzsimmons have been parishioners of St. Michael’s for 40 years, serving in various ministries. The sock tree ministry has succeeded all these years in part because a new team of seven or eight volunteers assists the couple to keep it running. They see there is a great need beyond the walls of the church, said Mrs. Fitzsimmons.
“I recognize that (the homeless) are the people who are most in need of a sign of love. They are adults like you and I, and if no one ever showed any affection to you, you would just deteriorate. We all just need to be loved.”