Holiday initiatives across Unity Health ground us in our mission and values

By Ana Gajic

Dec. 24, 2019 – Every December, a decorated Christmas tree sits near the doorway of the St. Michael’s Pediatric Clinic. Instead of ornaments, sparkly paper snowflakes cover the tree, each with an age, gender and wish list item written on them.

This isn’t a regular Christmas tree – it’s the Snowflake Program in action.

Staff at Unity Health Toronto are encouraged to pick a snowflake and buy a present for an anonymous child. Going strong for 15 years, the program provides families with presents that are both practical and fun over the holidays.

Lorna Bartholomew, a Registered Nurse in the clinic, started the program at the St. Michael’s site. The program is mostly staff driven, though families and outside donors have also contributed.

“Although not all our families celebrate Christmas, the holidays are a good time to do something extra,” Bartholomew said. “This is a nice way to bring people together and engage them in our clinic.”

The Snowflake Program is just one example of how teams across Unity Health band together to provide more than medical care over the holiday season. Reaching out to our communities, staff at the three sites have found ways to contribute to the neighbourhoods we serve and populations experiencing disadvantage.

Providence: ‘Beyond the medical piece’

Tracy Stober, a Registered Social Worker in the Palliative Care Unit at Providence, and her colleagues noticed that many patients coming into the hospital either arrived without proper clothes or personal hygiene items, or left without them.

A few years ago they teamed up with Mission Integration to kick off the Clothesline Project. Allocating a space in the hospital, they created a room where staff could drop off essential goods like shampoo or soap, and clothes for patients.

“Our patients love it,” Stober said. “If they’re doing rehabilitation, they can wear more than a robe. If they don’t want to be in a hospital gown all day, they can wear clothes that were generously donated.  It makes a huge difference to their experience.”

This year for the holidays, Providence is running a drive for people to donate toiletries such as toothbrushes, shampoo and soap, that will be added into care packages for the patients who need them upon discharge. Staff are also encouraged to donate rehab-appropriate clothing year-round to the Clothesline Project and keep the room full for patients.

“It brings back the humanity in medicine,” Stober said. “We have to focus on the medical aspects of a person in a hospital, but being able to give someone clothes when they don’t have them, goes beyond the medical piece. We show our patients we care for all aspects of their lives.”

St. Joseph’s: 400 pounds of food collected

At St. Joseph’s, an annual holiday tradition has helped staff contribute hundreds of pounds of food to the local Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC), which runs a community meal program for the West End neighbourhood.

“Everybody loves to help the community,” said Dwight Donaldson, Coordinator for Learning and Organizational Development, who helps plan the holiday celebrations at each site.

“We’re the nearest hospital to PARC, so there are a lot of people who use PARC’s services who are also our patients at St. Joseph’s.”

The two organizations come together to support their collective community by placing bins in the cafeteria at St. Joseph’s for staff to donate food items. Then PARC collects the food for distribution.

Last year, they estimated that St. Joseph’s staff donated 400 pounds of food.

“We have a lot to give back to our community,” Donaldson said. “Our care for community members goes beyond helping them when they’re sick and need health care.

St. Michael’s: A team effort to support the community

Meanwhile at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, a group of staff members known as “reindeer” coordinates the MAP team to sponsor families through the Yonge Street Mission’s Evergreen Centre.

MAP staff and scientists have supported the Evergreen Expressions of Care Christmas Sponsorship program for 13 years. The reindeer team organizes fundraising activities to raise money and support families every holiday season.

The reindeer organize the gifts, wrap them, and deliver them to the centre over the holidays. Through the fundraising, gift wrapping and delivery, the MAP reindeer say this is a great team-building exercise.

St. Michael’s is also collecting warm winter clothing – particularly winter coats, footwear, socks and mittens – for its Rotary Transition Centre. Staff can visit 1-001 Shuter and ring the doorbell to donate items.

Living our mission and values over the holidays

When Vanessa Nicholas-Schmidt, Mission and Values Manager, hears of the different initiatives staff are taking at Unity Health to give back to our communities over the holidays and year-round, she thinks of the work of our founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.

“There’s a quote from a newspaper that profiled the work of the Sisters in the early 1900s that says, ‘The Sisters work amongst the people seeking to meet the unmet needs of the most vulnerable,’” Nicholas-Schmidt said.

“Our ongoing commitment to compassionate care both at the bedside and in our wider communities carries this original mission into 2020. These projects are a wonderful way to share the love of Christmas and the holiday season.”

Do you have a photo of a holiday initiative that reflects our mission and values? Please let us know at and we’ll share submissions on social media.