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Ottawa family fostering joy through gift bags for homeless, frontline healthcare workers

A grass roots organization is offering a small gesture with a big impact.
A meeting between the Giving Gertie board of directors

After two years of running their not-for-profit organization, the people behind Giving Gertie believe it is the connections they make with people that have the biggest impact.

The small Ottawa family-run organization collects small, donated items like chocolate bars, granola bars and Tim Horton's gift cards, and puts them in gift bags to hand out to people who may be experiencing hard times.

Phoebe Seely, an undergraduate student at the University of Dalhousie, says it is her mother who inspired her to begin this journey.

“She’s always been trying to find ways to give back to others, and I think our family really embraced that spirit of trying to give back,” says Seely.

“My sister and I have gotten older now and we had some time, so we thought we’d start this not-for-profit because we wanted to make a difference ourselves. We thought the best way to do that is to facilitate a way for others to help give back.”

A Giving Gertie bag sells for $5, and while the gift bags themselves are meant to be given out to anyone in need, the money collected from these sales goes directly to local charities and local organizations like The Ottawa Mission, The Shepherds of Good Hope, Parkdale Food Centre and The Table.

However, it is the experience of handing out the gift bags that spurs the team on. Recalling a story from their earliest days about one “not-so-random act of kindness” serves as a reminder as to why they started the organization.

“We came across a man asking for money and when my mom gave him the Giving Gertie bag, he looked at her and said, you just made my day,” says Seely. “For us, that was a surreal moment when we realized this could make a difference in someone’s day. That moment of connection is partly why we started this organization.”

Since the beginning of their outreach efforts, Giving Gertie has sold over 2,600 gift bags, with 2,200 going to Ottawa’s homeless and 400 to frontline healthcare workers. Their grass roots organization has raised over $13,000 for local charities, with $2,000 going to the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

“We’ve recently created another bag. Our focus is still raising awareness for the homeless community and giving to those in need, but during this time we have felt the need to support our frontline workers, specifically our healthcare workers during the pandemic, because they have been working so hard,” says Seely.

“We were just thinking, what can we do to help all those people. We thought it would resonate with people in Ottawa right now. So, we are creating Giving Gertie for Healthcare Workers which also includes a note of gratitude from a kid in our community. All the proceeds go to the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.”

While Seely hopes the name inspires some intrigue, she believes anyone can be a Giving Gertie.

Anyone interested in finding out more can sign up to the Giving Gertie newsletter on their website.

Elementary school teachers can contact Giving Gertie via their website if their students are interested in sending thank you notes to frontline workers.

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