This Montreal mother brings the spirit of Santa Claus to thousands of children and women in need
Have you ever wondered what Santa’s workshop looks like?
Carolyn Bouchard’s garage offers a clue.
And his living room. And, sometimes, even a shower.
For 20 years, Bouchard has transformed his Notre-Dame-de-Grâce house into a toy depot to collect holiday gifts for thousands of underprivileged children, women and newcomers in the greater Montreal area.
« At one point, I remember literally almost hyperventilating because I had nowhere to put stuff, » Bouchard said with a laugh.
« I’ve had [gifts for one] one shelter in the shower, the other shelters in my hallway closet like stacked… in the garage and all over the stairs… and literally in our bedroom around our bed. »
Carolyn’s toy drive, as the local organization is known, began when Bouchard and her husband volunteered to collect and wrap gifts for a small list of children as part of an annual mini drive with family. and friends.
When the rest of the gang became too busy to continue, Bouchard took over the operation – and not without enthusiasm.
« I like to take on challenges on a different level and I didn’t have kids at the time, so I was able to do that, » she said.
Two decades and three children later, giving back is Bouchard’s full-time job. This year, her toy drive will provide gifts to more than 4,600 children and 1,700 women living in or connected to 65 shelters and organizations across the city.
« It’s so easy to help, » she said. « I’m just trying to [help] people help each other. »
As with the real Saint Nick, Bouchard doesn’t work alone – she relies on an elite team of elves to make toy collecting possible every year.
Bouchard’s neighbor, Sherri Prazoff, is one of his head elves. She began volunteering with the organization seven years ago and is responsible for distributing gifts to approximately 400 children each year.
« It’s so good because now I post in a bunch of different groups [and] people expect to see my emails, » Prazoff said. « You’re just starting to build this nice community of benefactors. »
And unlike most toy drives, each gift is chosen for a specific child.
Bouchard receives a list from each shelter and organization specifying the age and sex of the children in need of gifts.
« We give [people] the ability to choose an age and gender and they purchase the gift or electronically transfer money to us and we purchase the gift on their behalf,” Prazoff said.
The toys cost around $25 and drop-off points are located in several residences in the greater Montreal area, from Longueuil to Blainville via Hudson.
Some shelters even give Bouchard a real wish list of kids, specifying the exact toys they’ve requested.
Although the identity of the children is not shared with the donors of the gifts, Bouchard says people appreciate knowing that their donations are being sent directly to a child in need, and not just sitting in a warehouse.
« They like being able to choose like a five-year-old woman and then they’ll buy something with their five-year-old, » she said. « It’s not just like, ‘oh well maybe they need this’ and you drop it in a big box and you don’t even know if it’s really what they need. »
For Prazoff, the initiative is an easy way to give back during the holidays.
« You don’t know what life is like for that little girl, that little boy, or that woman right now, » she said. « They’ve been uprooted or they’re struggling financially…and Christmas could be very stressful. »
« So knowing that we’ve taken that pressure off a bit…makes my heart happy. »
« The World Like Us Needs You, » Says Gift Recipient
Yuphana Kamnuengsuk says collecting toys helped her and her three daughters at a time when things seemed hopeless.
« [It] saved me,” she said. “I don’t have to worry so much about what I’m going to buy for them.
An immigrant from Thailand, Kamnuengsuk says she arrived in Montreal in 2013 with limited English or French proficiency and a psychologically abusive husband who controlled all of her finances.
A messy divorce caused her to lose her home and, for a brief period, her children. Then, in 2017, she moved to Logifem, a shelter that offers practical help to thousands of women and children fleeing situations of violence or crisis.
Four years after leaving the shelter, Kamnuengsuk says she and her daughters are still getting gifts from Carolyn’s toy drive. This year, her children received a make-up bag, a doll, a puzzle and hair accessories. Kamnuengsuk received cosmetics.
« I’ve never bought makeup, I’ve always had it at Logifem, » she laughed.
Kamnuengsuk says Bouchard’s toy drive continues to brighten up her Christmases and has saved many mothers like her from the heartache of not being financially able to give their children gifts over the holidays.
« The world like us needs you very much, » she said. « You make our world more colorful and beautiful. »
Not just toys
Although collecting toys is what she is known for, Bouchard does much more than that, according to Anne Bergeron, communications and volunteer coordinator at Logifem.
“She also gives us gifts throughout the year for different occasions,” she said.
Whether it’s a couch for a newcomer, a moving company to help relocate a refugee, food for the shelter, or coats for residents throughout the winter — « I asks and she delivers. It’s amazing,” said Bergeron.
Christella Tchicaya, co-founder of L’acte D’Amour, a shelter that primarily helps newcomer women and children from African countries, says she’s been blown away by Bouchard year after year.
« She doesn’t want anything in return, » she said. « Even during the year she meets our needs with food drives, with backpacks in August before school, and during the pandemic she was the first to call us and say ‘I have masks. Do you need masks?' »
« The number of people she helps, it’s unbelievable. »
After all, Bouchard says she finds inspiration to keep giving back through her own father, who grew up in an orphanage and never got much, let alone Christmas presents.
« We were spoiled growing up, » she said. « It’s just easy for me to keep going. »