Christmas Spirit arrived in Burlington last week – it was delivered by a bunch of hockey coaches.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  November 26, 2012  That stuff about Christmas starting the day after Halloween is a little too rushed for me.  I like to ease into Christmas reasonable early in December and like it when the store and supermarkets ease me into the Christmas Season.

While driving home earlier this week the wife burst into the house and said “you aren’t going to believe this but there is a house down the street that already has their Christmas tree up.  I looked on my way out later and sure enough – there it was – a white plastic one to boot.

Christmas has a sense of season about it but that Christmas Spirit isn’t something we control nor is it something we can decide has to appear when we want it.  Like all things spiritual – we are on the receiving end – it arrives when it is supposed to arrive.

Jill Harrington a wacky, wired, single Mother run the Christmas For Seniors event.  It’s an organization that keeps in touch with different seniors groups across the city and asks them what they would like for Christmas.  These are people who are a bit on the being alone side; their family isn’t in the area, the spouses may no longer be with them.  They have fond memories of Christmas past and don’t want for all that much.

Harrington collects the names and what they would like and then places tags on Christmas trees that are put up in stores, office buildings – wherever she can get a tree she can put tags on.

A typical Children of Christmas Past tree set up in more than 30location in Burlington with trees also set up in Alberta and Nova Scotia.

People see the tree, see the tags, look at what is being asked for and if they feel the gift is something they can give they buy the gift, get it to Harrington who then delivers it to the senior.

Yes, it is labour intensive and Harrington does the work while holding down a full time job and raising a delightful ten year old boy who is still on the shy side.

Harrington handles it all by multitasking.  During one of our conversations Harrington appears to be talking to someone other than me – “not too much chocolate in the coffee please” which had nothing to do with the conversation we were having.

Harrington had sent me a note telling me of a huge surprise she got.

She had said to her seniors: “Wish with a big heart – what would you like, what do you need?”

To her surprise there were six requests for chairs that have the capacity to lift a person from the chair to a standing position.  They are called “reclining lift chairs”.

Harrington had no idea where she was going to find the money to pay for these gift requests but she knew that if she did raise the money she would have to get some help delivering the chairs.  They aren’t the kind of thing you tuck under your arm as you ring a doorbell to deliver a gift.

Harrington knows everyone you need to know to operate in Burlington.  She got herself in front of the Bulldogs coach at the Burlington Lions Optimist Minor Hockey Association and asked if they could lend her someone with a truck to deliver the chairs – assuming she could raise the money to buy them.

In no particular order Burlington Lions Optimist Minor Hockey Association coaches and staff with Burlington’s Mayor. Sheila Ramage, Kelly Meikle, Tim Wilson, Doug Rogers, Perry Lake, Scott Wright, Mike Milford and Rusty Reingruber. The coaches put up the funds to pay for the reclining lift chairs and said they would handle the delivery as well.

The coaches listened politely and told Harrington they would get back to her.  That was the best she could do, she thanked them for their time and moved on to the next challenge.  In less than ten minutes she got a text on her smart phone BLOMHA:

Hi Jill,

The Bulldogs are going to purchase the 6 chairs you require for your Seniors. I pitched it to the group of Coaches and all 25 Bulldogs Teams are going to chip in and buy these chairs ($600 each) Congratulations!!!!!!  Great cause.

Tim Wilson, a BLOMHA coach

BLOMHA would pay for all six chairs – and yes they would arrange for the delivery as well. The association is paying for two of the six with the coaches paying for the other four.

The Christmas Spirit had arrived a little earlier than Harrington expected and so did the tears that just flooded down her face.

The Burlington Lions Optimist Minor Hockey association was formed in 1951 by members of the Burlington Central Lions Club and the Optimist Club of Burlington, making it one of the oldest, longest serving youth organizations in our city. Members of both clubs were once actively involved in the operation of the organization. BLOMHA is governed by Hockey Canada, Ontario Hockey Federation and Alliance Hockey.

They are a not for profit, non-share corporation and volunteer based organization with 2,250 players registered making them the largest minor hockey association in our city. Their aims and objectives are to foster, promote and teach amateur hockey within the City of Burlington and to provide the maximum opportunity for all eligible individuals to participate regardless of their ability.

There are close to 500 volunteers registered to assist in the running of the program, which includes the operation of about 135 teams. All coaches, team trainers and other volunteers are fully qualified, accredited and insured, in keeping with the guidelines issued by governing bodies of minor hockey in Canada.

Cups. trophies, plaques and pictures – all the signs of hockey players as they move from one level to another; from one tournament to the next. BLOMHA’s 25 coaches take several thousand players through the training and the physical development every year.

A key goal of BLOMHA is to provide programs that develop each player’s full potential, subject to talent, ability and enjoyment of the game. Hockey is a competitive game therefore we are organized into three progressively competitive levels. BLOMHA is the only minor hockey association in Burlington that offers a complete range of programs available to all players regardless of ability.

Harrington was grateful that BLOHMA came through and with “thank you’s” galore done, she adjusted to the great news and the extraordinary act of kindness and moved on to collecting the gift requests and making up the tags that would go on Christmas trees and then actually getting the tags to the trees they are going to go on.

It gets a little hectic for Harrington but the work is made so much easier when she gets a response like the one she got from the Bulldogs.

Christmas for Seniors is in its thirteenth year of operation.  It grows year after year.  Last year there were 3,230 requests; Harrington expects that to go to more than 4000 in 2012  .

There are  30 trees in Burlington locations.

Harrington does the work with no form of remuneration, she doesn’t even get gas money.  Everything that comes in is donated and it goes out the door to a senior who might not otherwise get a Christmas gift.

The names of people asking for a gift are collected by people who work in retirement homes, nursing homes, long term care facilities and  people who work one on one with seniors.

Jill Harrington, Executive Director of the Christmas for Seniors charity works with her son Noah sorting tags that will be placed on Christmas trees where people can choose a gift they would like to give

Each location is given a spread sheet file that Harrington sends them.  The names and the gift they would like are entered on the spread sheets which are then aggregated to create a master list which Harrington then uses to create the tags that get placed on Christmas trees.  People pick up a tag, purchase and wrap the gift and then deliver it to Harrington’s home.  “There is a box on the porch – it’s the greatest honour system you can imagine.  Elves come by several times a day and put the gift inside the box” adds Harrington. “I call them elves”.

The gifts are stored at Harrington’s house until the day before Christmas. “We used to deliver them on Christmas Day but there were just too many to get done in the one day so now they are delivered a day or so before Christmas and handed out Christmas day.

Harrington has what she calls “elves” – these are people that arrange for the collection of the gift.  “There are a couple of dozen people who have a key to my house; the just come in put the gifts in a pile and we sort and get them ready for delivery.

A little unorganized?  Labour intensive?  Could a more efficient system be created?  Probably; but right now Harrington is focused on getting the labels out on the trees and then getting the gifts back to her house and delivered to their Christmas Day destinations.

The request for the reclining lift chairs was  a little on the “high” side.  “It was totally unexpected” said Harrington but once I had the request I thought ‘what the heck’.  Let me ask someone and see where it gets me.”

Could be if that’s the way you choose to see it.  Harrington asked the seniors:  what would you ‘wish’ for?

How plugged up does her house get?  Well her son does have to give up a part of his room when Christmas is just a week or so away but they manage to find the space they need.  “At some point” Harrington admits, “we are going to have to change the way we run this charity”.  She is organized as a non profit but doesn’t have charitable status. “I don’t need it right now”, says Harrington.

If you want to help out – send Harrington an email.   Visit the web site 

The program is growing beyond Burlington .  There are trees set up in Nova Scotia and Alberta.  Not easy to administrate all that from Burlington and Harrington realizes it is time to move from her dining room table to an office and secure the funding to allow her to develop it into a national program. “We are going to have more seniors to care for – not fewer” explains Harrington and there will be many of them who don’t have family to both care for them and remember them.

The poster identifies a tree that will have tags identifying a charity for Children of Christmas Past.

Harrington has both compassion for seniors and empathy for their plight.  She is currently working on a book on “elder abuse” and assuring that older people can live their lives with dignity. Once that has been turned over to her publisher’s  Jill Harrington is going to become a regular columnist for Our Burlington and will write about seniors for seniors.  Should be interesting.

This project has been a grind for Jill Harrington; 13 years of running around every day for the last quarter of every year and putting in five to six hours every night, usually with the help of her son Noah and an hour or so more once he is tucked into bed.

“You know” commented Harrington, after a talk about where this project can go, should go in the future, “in all the years I’ve been doing this – no one has asked me what I want for Christmas”.  Telling isn’t it.

The gift from the hockey coaches though was gift enough for Jill Harrington.

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