A random act of kindness nearly 20 years ago has snowballed into an avalanche of holiday cheer in the GTA.
During the holiday season in 1996, sisters April and Sarah Rutka heard a tragic story about a family who lost everything in a house fire just weeks before Christmas.
Deeply moved by the awful news, the pair canvassed their friends and family for donations and used the money to buy a Christmas tree, which they donated to the family.
From there, a holiday tradition grew.
"The following year we said: 'let's do another tree.' Then the year after that, it was two trees and then four and it has since snowballed," says Sarah Rutka, one of the co-founders of Holiday Helpers.
Since that first Christmas, Holiday Helpers has become the GTA's most prominent all-inclusive holiday service. They donate packages that include: an artificial tree with all the trimmings, a gift certificate to a local grocery store and essential gifts on the family's list like warm jackets and household items.
This year, they will deliver cheer to 380 families across the region — the most they have ever done. The list of families, the Rutkas say, grows each year. Luckily, so do the number of people volunteering with Holiday Helpers.
Rebecca Foster, a single mother to a 10-year-old son, Jayden, says the organization has made a big difference in her family's life.
"I try to remember it's about giving, it's about family, it's about love. So I try not to make it too materialistic," she told CBC News. "But I still want to have presents and things for my son under the tree."
This year Holiday Helpers was given free access to a warehouse space where their nearly 500 volunteers could sort packages.
Still, says Sarah Rutka, the demand from families in need in the GTA remains overwhelming. The organization receives requests from far more families than they could hope to help in any given year.
"I think we're [meeting] a fraction of the need, from the amount of calls and requests that we get. I think we're a drop in the bucket for the GTA," she says.