Halima Mubaligh, Program Manager of Better Beginnings Now with Leah Kanary, Lower School teacher and BVG lead coordinator of the annual community outreach campaign.
“The impact is great. There is no other word to explain it.”
Halima Mubaligh sums up Bayview Glen School’s annual effort to support children, parents and families in need in a word — but there is so much more.
“A huge difference bringing a smile to the faces of these families.” says the Program Manager of Better Beginnings Now. “We had families with tears, receiving these and opening them — that someone is here thinking of them — especially during this time.”
This past holiday season, Bayview Glen was the only school in Toronto to help the Better Beginnings Now Campaign of Kindness initiative — through a gift card collection and customized hampers filled to the brim.
“The saying, ‘From our family to yours’ truly becomes more than just words at this time,” says Dina Astrella, Head of the Prep School.
It marked BVG’s 20th consecutive year of participating in the program.
“We work with the poor, disadvantaged, high risk, new to the country, single parents, families with special needs,” says Mubaligh, who experienced first-hand the hardship of being a newcomer to Canada.
“The success of our program is because we are there to support them, to listen to their concerns, give them direction and connect them to the resources that help them.”
The need for services provided by Better Beginnings Now “tripled” in 2022 over the previous year, says Mubaligh.
“Families are really going through so much stress. The rent went so high, cost of living is really high, and that’s why definitely there’s an impact on their mental health.”
Better Beginnings Now is among several programs offered through Lumenus Community Services, an agency providing multiple services for free, including treatment programs, counselling and walk-in clinics. Funded by Toronto Public Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada, the organization serves more than 6,000 families across Toronto.
The process of organizing, filling and delivering hampers to Better Beginnings Now families takes months of detailed planning by several groups. It all kicks off when school starts in September.
“We coordinate from this end, in terms of preparing [family] profiles and looking into the needs of the clients that we provide services to,” says Mubaligh. “We have so many clients, over 1,000 — but we can only do 70 — the most high-needs, the ones that are regularly using food banks, clothing banks and have a lot of financial stressors.”
Subsequent meetings between BVG school leads and program staff help assign family profiles to specific classrooms in the Lower School, Prep School and Upper School, identify which items need to be purchased, quantities, sizes, etc., coordinate collection, pick-up, and delivery.
Along the way, multiple members of the whole school community become directly involved — from students and school staff — who are also assigned family profiles — to parent volunteers and the Parent Association.
Ping DiMenna has been involved in multiple Better Beginnings campaigns during her 17 years as a parent at Bayview Glen.
“I am a parent volunteer helping to sort and pack gift donations to the families,” says DiMenna, who has four children, including three who have graduated from BVG, and one currently in the Upper School. “Better Beginnings involves the whole student population, so it becomes a tradition of giving each year as they progress through the grades. The students can see the donated gift items which makes their contributions more meaningful and personal,” she says.
In past years and led by members of the Better Beginnings Prep School team, students and staff would deliver hampers directly to the home of the family it was collected for, enabling students to witness the impact.
The global pandemic halted that practice.
In December 2022, a group of Prep School students — including student Community Outreach leads — along with staff helped collect all 27 hampers, load them into vehicles, and deliver them to a Lumenus locations in North York.
“The thing that surprised me the most was the honest joy and tears the families had when we delivered the care packages,” says Amy Tsaur, Grade 8 student and Community Outreach Co-lead. “It was crazy how such small acts of kindness seem like they can change someone’s life.”
It was the first time in her three years at BVG that Tsaur was able to participate in delivering the hampers.
“I gained a greater understanding of the idea of philanthropy and how it can help others on a scale beyond measurement,” she says. “Going to deliver the packages and to the foodbank helped me develop a deeper connection and understanding with my community.”
Fellow Grade 8 student, Nikan Nikkhajoei was struck by the process.
“I was surprised about the manner in which we were able to collect every single item that we required for each family,” he says. “This is because it took an abundance of time, effort, and cooperation between the Heads and each Homeroom.”
The service initiative and experiential learning opportunity proved eye-opening for staff too.
“The act of giving without expecting something in return is one of the greatest lessons we can provide our young people,” adds Dina Astrella, who was among three staff to accompany students to drop off the collected items.
During their visit, BVG students and staff were given an overview of Lumenus, taken on a tour of the facility — which was previously a school — and even met some of the families who arrived at scheduled times to pick up their hampers.
“We get a lot of families that are called refugees that come to Canada,” Denise Palermo, who has been with the organization for 30 years, told BVG students.
“For some perspective, if you woke up tomorrow morning and your family said we’re leaving, it’s not safe for us here now, put everything in a bag about this big that you can carry and we’ll go to the airport where it’s very chaotic, hopefully get on a plane and go to a new country. When you get here, you won’t have a home, you won’t have any money, you won’t have any access to services and you won’t understand the language, the culture and you won’t understand the systems,” Palermo continued, painting a picture of the bitter reality many of their clientele endure.
“Often, they have to make very, very hard decisions — if I pay my rent, I will not have enough money to feed my children,” Palermo added. “All those things that you put together in those hampers are going to support those families in meeting their needs,” she says.
In all 27 bins filled, 70 families supported and more than $30,000 in gift cards collected from preschool to Grade 12.
Leah Kanary, Lower School teacher and lead BVG staff coordinator of the initiative shared this note with colleagues following the campaign, “At a time of year where making personal, meaningful connections is so important, please know you have made a lifelong connection with the family that you helped fill a basket of love and care.”
Community impact that will likely remain in the minds of all involved.
“Even after all these years,” says Dina Astrella, “the Better Beginnings Campaign continues to unite our community in ways that very few other occasions do.”