It’s opening day for the annual Aunt Leah’s Christmas Tree Lot at St. Stephen’s United Church, and as cars zoom along Granville Street, Angelina Oates talks trees.
She points to the “demonstration forest” set up near the entrance where customers can get a look at the different trees available this year — there are eight different types of trees on offer.
“All these trees here are a sample of every tree in the lot,” says Oates, who is looking festive in a green and red “elfie” hat.
It’s still just over a month until Christmas when the Courier visits the lot on Nov. 23, but there are already a few customers checking out the trees.
Aunt Leah’s Place, which has been offering services to kids in, and aging out of, the foster care system for 30 years, has been running its Christmas tree lot at this location for nearly a quarter century. It has since expanded to four other locations around the Lower Mainland — North Vancouver, Burnaby, Coquitlam and a second, new location in Vancouver’s River District. There’s also two weekend pop up locations planned for this year, one in East Vancouver and another in New Westminster.
“The tree lots are one of our biggest fundraisers of the year,” said Oates, who is the charity’s director of social enterprise. She runs the Christmas tree lots and the thrift store.
Last year, the tree sales raised more than $500,000. This year the goal is $620,000. And all of the money goes to support the work done at Aunt Leah’s Place throughout the year.
“Aunt Leah’s works with foster kids across the Lower Mainland and young moms and babies,” Oates says. “The idea is we work at two ends of the foster care system. We work with the moms and babies to get them life skills, and all the skills, to be able to keep their baby out of foster care… And then we work with the other extreme, which is the kids that have been in care, they’re bounced around and now they’re almost getting ready to move out, or older, and we want to teach them skills so they don’t end up homeless when they turn 19 and go out on their own.”
Roy, who did not want his last name used, was one of those kids.
“I went in and out of foster care, back and forth with my parents, and then my mom died,” he said. “I went back to foster care after living with my dad for a short period of time.”
Roy was in foster care from the age of 12 until he was 16. He was homeless for a few years, but, despite his tumultuous teen years, graduated from high school. At the age of 19, he was referred to Aunt Leah’s by the Urban Native Youth Association and went through the Link program, which is aimed at young people over 19 who are no longer in foster care. Aunt Leah’s Place also has a programed aimed at helped underage kids that are in care or close to aging out of care.
Roy said the program helped him find housing and other support services he needed.
“I didn’t have ID for the longest time and they helped me find the supports to get it,” Roy said. “They set me up with counselling. Basically all they did was everything I needed.”
Now 22, Roy said if he hadn’t found Aunt Leah’s Place his life would have gone “down the drain. That’s the best way I can put it.”
The key is the support. Both Oates and Roy say that Aunt Leah’s isn’t about telling participants what to do, but rather supporting and helping them achieve whatever goals they set for themselves.
For Roy, after working in Aunt Leah’s warehouse, he decided that he wanted to take training to operate a forklift. The program helped him figure out what he needed to do to make that happen. Today, he’s completed his forklift training and is currently looking for a job in a warehouse.
“They don’t necessarily help you if you just ask for it, you’ve got to jump through hoops, you’ve got to do that walk, you can’t just be expecting anything,” he said. “If you need something they’ll tell you how to do it and the once you start doing it and once they see your perseverance they’ll help you… If you need help you’ve also got to help yourself.”
Aunt Leah’s Christmas Tree Lots are open seven days a week until Dec. 23. For locations and hours, or to order a tree online, visit auntleahs.org/social-enterprise/tree-lots.