Betty Ann Battist co-ordinates Pictou West's Star Wish Program, providing
gifts for 104 children this year.(Rosalie MacEachern photo)
Socks, underwear, pyjamas, colouring books, dolls and toy trucks. If that sounds like a Christmas list, it is, but Betty Ann Battist has to multiply everything by one hundred.
She operates the Winifred Grant Opportunity Shop in Pictou that in turn runs the Star Wish Program in Pictou West. It is a program that helps needy families provide Christmas gifts for their children.
“We look after children up to the age of 12 and this year we have 104 children who need gifts,” said Battist.
That is up from last year, which was up from the year before. Since she became involved Battist has seen the number of children fall and rise again.
“At one point we were down to about 45 families who registered for help but we’ve seen an increase in the last two years. This year we have 60 families,” said Battist.
Battist was still teaching elementary school in Pictou when she joined the board of the opportunity shop.
“They wanted a teacher on the board and that is how I got involved. Ruth Nelson was running the shop and the Star Wish program when I started and by the time she gave it up I had retired from teaching so I took over,” she said.
Battist points out Nelson gave her a great deal of helpful information.
“Even when she retired she didn’t walk away. She’s been involved with the Star Wish program every year since but not once has she ever complained or criticized me if I did things differently. She’s just there to help the families and she’s been a blessing to me,” she said.
Families who are going to need help register at the opportunity shop or through the Pictou County Christmas Fund. Some learn about the program when they visit the food bank in the same building.
“This year we got about 80 per cent of our registrations through the Christmas Fund so I had to move fast to get the stars out to the churches because people need time to shop and turn in their gifts,” Battist said.
The stars were distributed among town and rural churches in Pictou West. Each star is numbered and identifies a male or female of a certain age as well as a requested toy and sizes for clothing.
“We have a price of $25 for toys. Sometimes a school class will go together to pay for a toy or seniors will split the cost, that’s all fine with us,” she said.
As a mother of two and grandmother of five, Battist believes, as opportunity shop founder Winifred Grant did, that children should receive something they asked for, if at all possible. But she also remembers her own fruitless and frustrating effort to find a Polly Pocket Backpack in a department store years ago.
“I was looking for an actual backpack and later found out from my daughter it was a tiny little toy and not a backpack at all so I strongly encourage people to use the Christmas catalogue to find what is being asked for. Then you can go buy it wherever you like,” she said.
People who do not take stars find many other ways of helping.
“We get cash donations from people who don’t want to shop and that gives us flexibility to buy what is needed. We also get gifts that are not for specific children. Every year we have someone who donates a Tonka truck and we always find someone for that truck.”
One Pictou group is committed to providing pyjamas while another buys stocking-stuffer type items such as dinkies and bubblebath. Individuals often buy and donate children’s clothing.
“We have knitters who drop off bags of mittens, sometimes we don’t even know who they are but we appreciate them. In Lyons Brook we have a mitten tree program that provides mittens, hats and even some sweaters.”
Once all the items are brought in to the churches or dropped at the opportunity shop everything moves to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Pictou. Everything is laid out, sizes are grouped, numbers are matched and bags are stuffed and labelled for pickup.
“I have a co-ordinator in each of the seven churches. I have six or seven people who help me sort and the next day most of them and six or seven more come back to pack bags. On the day we give the bags out there are about four of us. Ruth (Nelson) has been there all through the years and Jeanette Johnson has been with me for the last 14 years and was with Ruth, too. The same wonderful helpers come every year and most of them have been doing it for at least a decade now,” she said.
Most recipients are in and out quickly and the volunteers understand that.
“Many don’t say too much but we know they are glad to get what they need. Every single year there is somebody who makes it all worthwhile. It can be a look or something that is said or a card that is given but there is always something to assure you that everybody’s efforts were worthwhile.”
Battist remembers her own mother being involved in putting together food and gift baskets. “It doesn’t seem poverty goes away but if we can make Christmas happy for the children, that’s worth something.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org