By Kathy McGrath

Local real estate agent Heather Lemieux hoped she might collect 15 gift boxes for women in a local shelter, but she was overwhelmed when 60 people contributed to her Shoebox for Shelter drive.

“The generosity from everyone was incredible. These boxes will be the only gift many of these women receive for the holidays,” Heather said.

The Royal LePage agent invited friends and neighbours to her home in mid-December to wrap up the boxes they brought, which contained things like body lotion, hair products, cosy socks, transit tickets and gift cards. She treated the women who contributed gifts to Christmas cheer and nibbles.

The boxed gifts were distributed to women at Juliette’s Place, a Scarborough shelter, as well as to women who recently left the shelter who are working hard to make it on their own.

Heather’s neighbour Rose Demontbrun, who attended the gathering, has supported a disadvantaged young woman for many years, helping her to overcome negative experiences, including abusive relationships. Rose says this young woman was taken away from her mother, also a victim of domestic problems, at a young age.   The situation illustrates how difficult it is to break the cycle of family violence.

“I admire the women who do leave an abusive relationship,” said another neighbour, Margaret Grant.  “At one time women were encouraged to stay with abusive partners for the sake of the children.  That’s nonsense!  Children know what’s going on.”

In thanking the gathering, Heather pointed out that the women in shelters are actually the fortunate ones.  She explained that one woman per week in Canada is killed by an abusive partner, which indicates many women are not able to find safe havens.

Shanon Spencer-Brown, executive director of the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation, said the Shoebox Project – a stand-alone charitable organization – is part of a larger initiative by Royal LePage realtors to help women seeking refuge. She said the shoebox gifts make the women in shelters, as well as staff, feel supported by the community at large, which is especially important during the holidays.

“In many cases it’s not safe for the women and children to go to Grandma’s house or go visit a cousin, so the shelter becomes a surrogate family for them,” she explained.  “The shoeboxes can make the shelter seem more festive and, hopefully, make the women feel less disconnected from holiday celebrations.”