At Nova Scotia Community College’s Pictou campus they like to look after their own, especially at Christmas.
Student services manager Scott MacGillivray is the chief elf of NSCC’s Santa Project but he is quick to point out the effort is successful because it involves management, staff and students doing their part to make Christmas a little more manageable for cash-strapped students.
“It began with some staff members becoming aware that a couple of students were going to have a really hard time providing Christmas for their families and wondering how we could help,” said MacGillivray.
That was 12 years ago and while no one kept track for the first few years MacGillivray knows 60 families were helped in the past three years. For the past couple of weeks gifts and donations have been trickling in to the student services department and MacGillivray has a locked room that is filling up with winter boots, books, clothes in all sizes, mittens, books, toys, gift bags and wrapping paper.
“Santa Project creates a lot of activity on campus. There is a lot of sharing and working together and you can definitely feel the Christmas spirit.”
MacGillivray said it comes down to taking the community part of community college seriously.
“We’re here to help each other. Christmas happens to be a time when help is needed and we have people generously fundraising, shopping and packaging gifts.”
Coming from a working class family in rural Antigonish County, MacGillivray can understand the stress some families feel this time of year.
“A lot of our staff members have worked in their fields or different fields before teaching. They come from different backgrounds and experiences. We understand that to have children who are four or six or 10 or 12 and to not know how you’re going to provide any presents must be terrifying.”
In MacGillivray’s case, he worked his way through St. Francis Xavier University and went on to get a degree in social work in Ontario. He came home for a friend’s wedding just as St. Martha’s hospital had an opening for a male social worker.
“They wanted somebody with hospital experience and I’d worked a few months in a hospital in Ottawa so I was hired.”
He moved to NSCC 18 years ago, first as an instructor and then worked as a counselor before becoming student services manager.
“I’ve been very lucky to have stayed in the field I started in. That doesn’t happen so much anymore.”
He pointed out many of the campus’s 670 students are retraining for new careers.
“For some of them the decision to go to college means the start or continuation of a financial struggle,” he said noting some have lost their jobs while others may have been forced by injuries or illness to seek new lines of work.
Students who have returned to school under sponsorship by government agencies may not have much money to spare.
“What they receive may put them over the threshold for any other assistance but they may not have enough to cover Christmas.”
The average age of students at the Pictou campus is 26, though they range from late teens to senior years. Many already have dependents.
“In some cases my department is already working with students who are experiencing a lot of anxiety around finances so help from the Santa Project is something we can offer them.”
Other students do not share their financial worries and apply to the program only when they are convinced they cannot manage without help, he added.
All students receive an e-mail about the Santa Project and how it works in the fall. MacGillivray and other staffers follow up with a personal visit to every classroom. They explain how to access help and encourage other students to find creative ways of contributing to the project.
“Students who want to help are limited only by their creativity. They can donate money or they can fundraise for a family. We’ve had quite a few different fundraisers through the years, including bake sales, sucker pulls, a book sale and a group who made Christmas decorations with birch logs, pine and ribbon.”
Those needing help fill in a confidential form giving the sex and ages of household members and their sizes. They also specify likes and dislikes, needs and wants. That list, minus all identification, is then handed over to a class or a staff group who, having collected donations or done their fundraising, set out to be Santa’s helpers.
“If a child has no boots for winter, that is obviously a need we’re going to try to fill but we know a warm sweater and two pairs of socks is not going to make any six year-old’s Christmas morning so we definitely provide toys,” said MacGillivray, himself a father of four.
For those who request their gifts be wrapped, MacGillivray recruits volunteers for a wrapping party. Those who prefer to do their own wrapping are given a supply of wrapping paper or gift bags.
An important supporter of the Santa Project, the student association provides grocery gift cards for each family.
“That helps to provide the Christmas meal and maybe a few extra treats for the children.”
After classes end and staff and students head home for their Christmas break, the students receiving help return individually and MacGillivray or campus counselor Bert Thompson, the only other person to know who is being assisted, hand over the Santa Project gifts.
“It only takes a couple of minutes but to be there for the thank-yous, the smiles and the tears is something you don’t forget.”