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Jack Knox: The face of need not always what you expect

“For me, one of the benefits of being involved with the fund is that, every year, it dispels my own image of what need looks like.”

Right, back in the saddle.

Didn’t mean to be away this long but it has been a busy year. Busy, busy, busy. Just this week, for example, I bought a spatula. To quote Ferris: “Life moves pretty fast.”

What’s been in the news since I was last here in May? Depressingly familiar stuff, mostly: inflation, war, (un)affordable housing. The forests all burned down — again — though this time the fires struck Maui, not Merritt, and the smoke reached important places like Toronto and New York, not just provincial backwaters like Victoria and Vancouver, leading the powers that be to briefly ponder taking climate change more seriously.

Still, all those stories were swept into the margins by the most urgent hot-button issue of 2023: off-leash dogs in parks in Saanich (followed by the current raging debate about the length of the leashes themselves).

Also this year:

• Canada Post put the Spirit of British Columbia ferry on a stamp. Unfortunately, letters bearing the stamp were stuck in the post office due to staffing shortages and mechanical problems…

• An NHL Who’s Who — Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Mitch Marner — showed up for hometown boy Tyson Barrie’s wedding here. Most guests flew to the Island, but McJesus just walked across the water.

• Invoking the name of Gandhi, a Chilliwack couple went on a hunger strike to protest against the noise from a neighbouring pickleball court. They were immediately made honorary citizens of Victoria.

• Responding resolutely to complaints about squalor, antisocial behaviour and people smoking meth on downtown streets, Victoria city council vowed to plant more flower boxes and bulldoze the fountain in Centennial Square.

Or, at least, that’s the impression — which could be bad news for the Times Colonist Christmas Fund. The perception of ineffectual flailing in the face of entrenched dysfunction doesn’t exactly imbue fed-up Islanders with the spirit of charity.

That’s because many of us tend to herd everyone on the street — the afflicted and addicted, the shoplifters raiding downtown stores with impunity, the brain-injured guy in the wet sleeping bag in the doorway, the toothless woman in the wheelchair, the waving-at-demons sidewalk ranter whom we slalom past as though he doesn’t exist — under the same big umbrella. And because we slap the same one-size-fits-all label on them all, they all share the resentment and indignation when somebody gets stabbed or a window gets smashed or some other example of urban decay makes us throw up our hands in despair.

Again, that sentiment could mean bad news for the Christmas Fund, which would be terrible news for the people it serves.

For me, one of the benefits of being involved with the fund is that, every year, it dispels my own image of what need looks like. When I — begrudgingly — donate to charity, I tend to form an image of what the recipient looks like: either a suitably winsome Dickensian waif who will gaze upon me with adoration, or the scoundrel who stole the lights from my bike.

The reality, though, is the faces of need rarely match my imagination. That was driven home several years ago, back in the olden days when newspaper employees used to deliver Times Colonist Christmas Fund hampers in person. The doors were answered by a succession of isolated seniors, a bleary-eyed mother whose wage as a night-shift cleaner couldn’t feed her four young children, a single parent tethered 24/7 to her child’s wheelchair… No shortage of ordinary people who appeared bewildered and embarrassed to find themselves unable to outswim the tsunami of bad luck — a lost job, a car accident, a stroke — in which they were drowning.

At least they had doors to open. A couple of years ago I wrote about a severely schizophrenic 60-year-old man who had spent eight years homeless downtown, sleeping in doorways and eating out of garbage cans, so meek and unthreatening that no one noticed him at all (or maybe I just glared at him, thinking of my stolen bike lights).

All of them are why the Times Colonist Christmas Fund exists. You know how it works: The TC asks readers for donations, which are then distributed to local organizations that know which individuals could use the most help. For several years the money was funnelled through the Salvation Army and the Mustard Seed Street Church, but since the pandemic the list has expanded to include other groups that work directly with those in need.

Three dozen Vancouver Island organizations received grants last year. Nourish Cowichan makes meals for children who would otherwise spend the school day hungry. Victoria-based Soap For Hope Canada repackages hotel shampoos and toothpastes into hygiene kits for old people whose pensions no longer keep pace with inflation. Transition House got money for food, including Christmas dinner, for women and children escaping abusive relationships. There was also money to feed Ukrainian refugees. On and on, good old-fashioned neighbour-helping-neighbour stuff.

That’s why, over the next few weeks, I’ll be back to write about the Christmas Fund, some of those organizations it supports, the people they serve and the donors who make it possible.


• You can donate by going to the Times Colonist ­Christmas Fund web page, That page links to CanadaHelps, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

• Or mail a cheque to Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Rd., Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.

• You can also use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.