A North Delta woman is asking anyone with love in their heart this holiday season to share a little of it with members of the homeless community.
This year, for the third time, Erin Schulte is organizing the Christmas Card Collective – an international effort that delivers festive greeting cards, inscribed with friendly messages, to people sleeping in shelters during a time that should be filled with family and fellowship.
Christmas, Schulte said, is a season to spend with the people you love and to reach out to others who may not have anyone in their lives – not simply an opportunity to pile gifts under the tree.
“It’s about mending gaps and bridging distances and bringing family together,” she said.
The project – which aims to deliver 10,000 personal, heartfelt greetings this year – came to life after Schulte spent five years operating a pop-up soup kitchen on 135A Street in Whalley – formerly the site of a large tent city. Each December, she noticed that the people who lived rough along the strip would receive socks and food and other practical gifts from various charitable groups.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely for them to receive cards from the community … to remind them they’re being thought of.”
And so began the Collective.
Started in the Lower Mainland in 2017, Schulte’s effort has now expanded to Alberta and Ontario, and into the U.S. This year, cards will be distributed to local shelters, as well as in Red Deer, Calgary, Toronto, Seattle and as far south as a mission in Los Angeles.
Each evening in the days leading up to Christmas, as people are welcomed into the shelters, they will find on their pillow an envelope containing a card with a personal message hand-written inside.
“One could be from a four-year-old who has coloured and glittered (the paper), the next night (it might be) a gut-wrenching message,” said Schulte, who has taken it upon herself to personally read each missive before sealing it and sending it off for delivery.
In years past, she has provided enough cards for three consecutive nights. This year, her goal is to extend that to five nights.
Knowing the cards are coming creates a real sense of anticipation among the recipients, she said.
In its first year, the project sent out around 2,000 cards; in 2018, it was closer to 5,000. This year, Schulte has set a goal of doubling that figure.
Reading, sealing and bundling so many cards is an admittedly exhausting process that, last year, kept her up some nights until 4 a.m., so this year, Schulte is looking for volunteers to help share the workload.
“Reading these cards is a beautiful thing, if you want to get into the Christmas spirit. Some will make you bawl your eyes out, others will make you laugh (at) what kids will write.”
While she knew she wanted to make the season brighter for people who often have little to celebrate, Schulte found her efforts had an unexpected benefit.
“I didn’t think about the other side of it,” she said.
That “other side,” she explained, is the conversations that the project has sparked among children and their families – discussions about homelessness and the true meaning of Christmas.
It’s an issue that is “so out-of-sight, out-of-mind for kids,” she said.
Schulte hopes the project will help to shift families’ focus away from so-called “wish lists,” which she compares to a grocery shopping list, with parents simply spending money and ticking off items.
“I would like to see the commercial side of Christmas not be so important,” she said.
“The week of Christmas, there’s nothing you can give me that equals the feeling of knowing people are opening up these cards.”
She’s heard that some people carry the cards with them all year round, but one of her most treasured responses is a photo of a man’s hands holding an open card. It was sent to her from the California mission.
This year, the Christmas Card Collective’s reach has extended even farther south.
Word of the project has made it to Brazil, where a teacher read Schulte’s story online and contacted her via email. The woman, named Michelle, explained that her students had filled out cards for a similar project in that country, titled Make it Merry, only to learn they would not be collected and distributed this year.
“Can I send you the cards the students have already written?” Michelle asked Schulte.
Locally, classrooms and sports teams across the Lower Mainland have taken part in past years and, Schulte expects, will do so again this year.
“There’s never been a group (that has participated) that hasn’t wanted to do it again.”
She’s inviting social groups, youth groups or individuals – anyone who wants to get involved – to contact her.
Participants will be asked to fill out the cards and place them inside unsealed envelopes.
It’s important that the messages being delivered are filled with love and kindness, so she won’t pass along any that haven’t been vetted.
Schulte expects to begin collecting the completed cards in the third week of November, and to continue until Dec. 5 or 6, in order to get them to their respective destinations in time for distribution.
“I don’t get to see firsthand how they are received… but the messages I get back are so nice,” she said.
She’s also grateful for the corporate support her efforts have continued to receive.
Blank cards are this year being provided by Aline Greetings, while distribution is once more being provided by VanKam Freightways and Hercules Forwarding.
While her own focus is on the Christmas Card Collective, Schulte noted that the need for fellowship reaches beyond the homeless community.
“A lot of people are alone at Christmastime. There’s a lot people can do – bake cookies and knock on their door,” she said.
“Christmas is not about anything you can possibly buy in a store. It’s about community – bringing family and friends together.
“Bring humanity back – that’s my wish for Christmas this year.”