Volunteers help assemble items for inclusion in backpacks to be handed out to homeless individuals in the region. The West Shore-based project is spearheaded by Colwood resident Niki Ottosen and her family and partners with the Dandelion Society to reach the region’s homeless community.

Volunteers help assemble items for inclusion in backpacks to be handed out to homeless individuals in the region. The West Shore-based project is spearheaded by Colwood resident Niki Ottosen and her family and partners with the Dandelion Society to reach the region’s homeless community.

Annual Christmas backpack project a labour of love for volunteers

Dec. 16 is the deadline to help stuff sacks for the homeless

What began as a gift of kindness and caring for less than 20 people for Christmas Eve in 2008 has grown to an initiative that helped 200 homeless individuals and those less fortunate last year.

When a Colwood couple launched their Christmas Backpack Project in 2008, they wanted to make a difference for people struggling with what most people take for granted at this time of year.

“I thought backpacks would help people get through that day when most people are with their families,” explained Niki Ottosen, who initiated the program with her husband, Daniel. “We thought it would be nice to try and fill the backpacks with toiletries, as well as a few chocolates and a Christmas card saying people in their community were thinking about them.”

Last year the Ottosens and their daughter, Kristen, with the assistance of a dedicated group of friends and volunteers, distributed 200 backpacks filled with donations from businesses throughout the Capital Region.

Ottosen, who has operated Gardener For Hire with Daniel for the past 15 years, said the idea came to her when she thought working as a gardener meant taking what she needs in a backpack with her each day.

The fact the program has grown so large is a testament to the generosity of those who donate and the businesses that have stepped up, she said.

She praised Alpine Recycling and Transfer Station on Dunford Avenue and Thrifty Foods locations in Tuscany Village and Broadmead, the Colwood municipal hall, Millstream Self Storage and Disaster Aid Canada for providing donation drop off locations.

“Alpine also provides space for sorting, which is a huge help because we just can’t do it out of our house any more,” Ottosen said. “The Canadian Tire store in Langford gives us $500 and the Downtown Victoria Rotary has really stepped up as well this year.”

She admits it can be a challenge to connect with the end users, with at least 150 people in the region living outdoors all year by choice or circumstance. Ottosen tries to go the extra mile by asking them what they need, and buying tarps, sleeping bags and other items as required.

“It’s gratifying and overwhelming,” she said. “The one-on-one connections you make, like when someone bursts out crying because you want to help them, is what keeps me coming back each year.”

Volunteers are accepting donations at the above mentioned drop-off locations until Friday, Dec. 16. For more information on needed items, visit Christmas Backpack Project Victoria on Facebook. To donate online go to gardenerforhire.com/about-us/christmas-backpack-project.

reporter@goldstreamgazette.com