By Erin Dej
On Christmas Eve this year 2,300 people experiencing homelessness in Ottawa are expected to receive backpacks filled with hygiene products, clothing, treats, and a Tim Hortons gift card thanks to an initiative created by Ron Pitre.
On October 15, 2012 Ron’s house caught fire and he lost everything. Luckily, no one was hurt and he had tenant insurance to help him get back on his feet. Spending thousands of dollars at once to furnish his new home left Ron feeling uneasy, and he saw it as a calling to help those in need. Ron had previously experienced a brief bout of homelessness and there was a period where he relied on food banks, including over Christmas time. He remembers how important the Christmas food boxes were to help make the holiday season special for his daughter. After the fire, Ron realized “I’m made to help someone”.
That year Ron, a music lover, attended the Shepherds of Good Hope’s Christmas Eve mass, with his keyboard and a stack of Tim Horton’s gift cards in tow. That night began something bigger than Ron could have imagined. Wanting to do more, in 2013 he handed out gift bags. In 2014 he distributed 230 backpacks, thanks to the support of Giant Tiger. In 2015 things really took off. Besides Shepherds, Backpacks for the Homeless now partners with the Ottawa Mission, Ottawa Inner City Ministries, Operation Come Home, Centre 507, the Salvation Army, and Le Gîte Ami distributing over 1,000 backpacks.
Ron Pitre and his team load up on some of the essentials that go into the backpacks
Ron now has a team of volunteers coordinating the project. Between those who donate money in the fundraising campaign to buy the backpacks and Tim Hortons cards, to the volunteers who take a backpack (or two!) to fill with essential items, to the 3 team leaders who manage the logistics of getting backpacks to and from volunteers and to the designated organizations, Ron estimates that over 1,000 people are committed to helping the cause. The volunteers, Ron says, are excited to help. Workplaces, churches, and families get involved, with many children leaving handmade Christmas cards in the backpacks. Ron says he’s overwhelmed by people’s generosity and enthusiasm to help Ottawa’s homeless.
Ron has learned a lot about homelessness over the years. He chokes up as he describes the stories people have shared with him. Ron says that he’s learned about the causes of homelessness, “it’s not because they want to be there or choose it”. Abuse, intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous Peoples, and the lack of affordable housing all contribute to homelessness. Ron’s hope is that the backpacks give people a sense of dignity and warmth that they deserve during the Christmas season.
The Backpacks for the Homeless initiative is working to raise another $5,000 in donations to reach its 2016 goal of providing 2,300 backpacks to Ottawa’s homeless. They are holding a fundraising event this Thursday, November 17th at 6:30pm at Broadway Bar and Grill (1896 Prince of Wales Drive). Anyone wishing to volunteer to fill a backpack can sign up at backpacksforhomeless.ca or visit their Facebook page.