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Jack Knox: You can't solve the world's problems, but you can help a neighbour

Why do we do what we do? Because it’s not about solving an intractable problem, it’s about helping people, real ones.

Sometimes you ask yourself: “What’s the point?”

You read another story about the rising flood of need and realize we’ll never be able to dam the river that feeds it. So why try?

Case in point: The United Nations just issued an appeal for $46 billion US to save 180 million people of the world’s poorest people from humanitarian crises in 2024. The UN won’t get anywhere close to that much; last year it asked for $57 billion but raised barely a third of that.

Those are big numbers, too big and far away to wrap your head around, so let’s move closer to home. Remember the Apple Tree Gang? Thirty years ago they were all over the news, a group of homeless people who got their name from a tree near the Johnson Street Bridge where they would drink, sleep and sometimes die.

They were familiar downtown faces — a core group of maybe 15, plus a couple of dozen occasionals — the best known being Sassy Jack, a fixture at Government and Yates. “Say hello to Sassy,” the tour bus drivers would urge their passengers. The tourists would wave, and Sassy would wave back.

The point is that in those days there were few enough street people that Victorians knew them by name. Seems almost quaint today, when we can’t even keep up to where the tents are.

And that’s just the most visible, in-your-face face of need. The number of people who aren’t so obviously struggling, but are struggling nonetheless, continues to grow. When I delivered Times Colonist Christmas Fund cheques to local charities the other day, people talked about surging demand this season — more hampers going out the door to more hungry people.

Different types of people, too. When Gayle Ireland first started volunteering at the Goldstream Food Bank 37 years ago, the typical client was a single mother on social assistance.

“Now it’s working families who can’t make ends meet,” she said. Two parents, both with jobs, but unable to keep their heads above the water in a city where housing costs would make even Jeff Bezos swallow his gum. As if to prove Ireland’s point, a young couple stood behind her framed in the doorway of the Langford food bank, awaiting their turn.

The thing is, we’re used to stories like that now. Every year at this time, you open the newspaper and read about how much worse things are, more people being sucked into the vortex. Chances are we’ll read the same thing next Christmas. No matter how hard we bail, the water still rises. We despair.

And that’s when we ask that question: If we can’t solve this, what’s the point of trying? Why throw more money into this black hole?

Here’s why: Because it’s not about solving an intractable problem, it’s about helping people, real ones.

Sometimes that gets lost when talking about some faceless abstract concept like “the needy.” It’s not until we walk into somewhere like the food bank and see somebody who looks just like us, except hungrier, that we are reminded of the power of one person to help another. Can’t take on the weight of the world, but can ease another’s burden, if only temporarily.

I get a kick out of bringing Christmas Fund cheques to places like that. Not only do I bask in the gratitude of the people who run the organizations — blushing modestly as though I were handing over my own money, not that of the fund’s donors — but I get to see flesh-and-blood neighbours getting tangible assistance. Honestly, I wish I could take all those donors with me so that they could experience the same cause-and-effect boost that comes with knowing that that family is going to have food on the table and presents to open this year.

Yet another case in point: Just as I was finishing this column, a donation to the Christmas fund arrived with a note attached.

“The TC Christmas Fund brightened our family Christmas some 38 years ago,” it began. “I was a single dad with two little kids and money was tight. We were living at the Cridge and had never heard of the TC Fund. Out of the blue we somehow were on the list and the donation was a real blessing.

“More than the extra food and toys it provided, the generosity of strangers renewed my faith in my fellow Victorians and mankind in general. To me that was the real spirit of Christmas at work.”

The 2023 Times Colonist Christmas Fund campaign is winding down. It won’t solve world hunger, or bring world peace, or dam the flood. But it will, somewhere, bring real relief to a real person in need. As the donor’s note showed, that’s the point.


So far this season, the Times Colonist Christmas Fund has raised $860,003.23 toward our $1-million goal.

To donate, go online to That page is linked to CanadaHelps, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

Or mail a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, 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.