WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Betty Storoschuk, left, and Rachelle Pouliot fill welcome bags.
Refugees arriving in Edmonton, especially those coming from war-torn countries, usually bring little with them.
But thanks to the Catholic Women's League, every federally-sponsored refugee that comes to the Edmonton Reception House, a facility run by Catholic Social Services, gets a welcome bag filled with basic items, from toothpaste and deodorant to colouring books for the children and toilet paper.
The articles in the bag are meant to get the refugees through the first week while they adjust to their new country.
The Refugee Welcome Bag project is a diocesan project initiated in 1991 after CSS asked the league for help with its refugee program.
Since then, CWL councils have taken turns administering the project for several years at a time. Councils that have coordinated the project in the past include St. Maria Goretti of Devon, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sherwood Park and Holy Spirit in Edmonton.
Members of the council administering the project prepare the bags while all other councils contribute items or money to buy the items.
St. Charles Council in northwest Edmonton has been running the program since 2009. Rachelle Pouliot and a handful of council members fill welcome bags every time they get an order.
What they include in their bags are toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, feminine napkins for women, razors and shaving cream for men, diapers for children under two, and then they give them a calendar with writing paper and a pencil, some envelopes and a small sewing kit and a bath towel.
"Then, for the children, we always include a colouring book, crayons, storybooks ands a small cuddly toy, and we often give toilet paper, lotion, dental floss, combs and brushes if we have them available," explained Pouliot.
Pouliot said she recently received a letter from Catholic Social Services saying the refugees are very appreciative of what they receive.
CWL members and other parishioners donate most items that go in the bag.
"We get a lot of little sample bottles of lotion and shampoo and little bars of soap from hotels that we include in our bags." Recently the council got 50 bath towels donated during a social event at St. Charles.
Whatever is not donated, Pouliot has to buy. CWL councils in the archdiocese each donate $25 per year toward the program.
Since St. Charles took over the program in 2009, it has welcomed 1,050 refugees and filled 437 welcome bags.
"Every (refugee) family gets a bag and every single person gets a bag," explained Pouliot.
When she gets an order, Pouliot and six or seven ladies fill it up and then take it to Catholic Social Services. Staff and volunteers from CSS hand out the welcome bags to the newcomers when they arrive. "I don't see the refugees at all."
The 167-member St. Charles CWL Council has a large storage room in the church where it has all the items categorized.
"I really enjoy doing this," said Pouliot, a CWL member since 1981. "It's something that we as Catholic Christian women can do for people that are less fortunate than us."
Former CWL president Connie McBride also helps with the welcome bag project at St. Charles.
"Right now, we give way more than we gave in the early years," McBride noted. A welcome bag for a single refugee would contain $25 to $30 worth of basic items. A bag for a family would be double that.
McBride said occasionally the CWL requests items from all the councils. "At the next meeting we just get boxes and boxes," she said.
"It's a really rewarding program and it's neat to see all the stuff come in and I think it gives the women something to do," McBride said. "Our women want to be able to help in different ways."