Comfort came in a basket

In a room at the shelter, Jordan Smith found a bag of espresso coffee in a laundry basket.

“When I saw the coffee, I felt like I could invite my friends over and make espresso for all of them at my own house,” she said. “I felt like I was ready to start my own life and live with my daughter.”

Smith (not her real name), 30, had been in an abusive relationship for 13 years before she and her daughter started to live at Ernestine’s women’s shelter in Toronto. Ernestine’s assists women and youth trying to escape violence by providing them with shelter and support. During Smith’s stay, she received two laundry baskets overflowing with unexpected goods from the Basketeers.

“When I saw the baskets, oh my God, you wouldn’t imagine,” Smith said. “I loved it. It was everything. The baskets they gave to me had everything I needed.”

For the last 12 years, the Basketeers, a non- profit charity, has supported women’s shelters by filling laundry baskets with items women need to re-start their lives. The idea came to Cheryl Stoneburgh, 52, while helping a friend move out of her home 13 years ago. Her friend was trying to escape an abusive environment.

“It had sort of sat in my mind, these things that went on behind closed doors. The physical abuse,” Stoneburgh said.

Stoneburgh and her friends decided that rather than exchange presents for Christmas, they would build starter kits (baskets) for women, such as Smith, who were moving out of shelters and into new homes.

That year, they donated 14 baskets to a women’s shelter. This year, the Basketeers have expanded to over eight regions across southwestern Ontario and received 1,402 basket donations for 39 shelters.

“When I started (the Basketeers) there was no one else doing a program for moms,” Stoneburgh said. “There were many programs … for children … but nobody was thinking of the moms.”

Gale Horobin, 54, is among the thousands of people who prepare the baskets they donate. For the past four years, she has contributed a basket each year. And ever since Horobin began her own family, she has been volunteering and donating to many different charities.

“It makes you feel good to know your improving somebody’s life in some way and putting a smile of their faces,” Horobin said. “It absolutely chokes me up. It’s my personal high.”

The Basketeers, Horobin explained, are different from other charities because the program asks people to be creative when assembling the baskets.

“(These women) are trying to start a new life, yet they have no dishes, forks or bedding,” she said. “And while sometimes they can get these sort of things, it’s the personal things they don’t get. The deodorant, blow drier and makeup.”

“Even a bottle of nail polish so that they can look pretty and feel good about themselves,” Horobin continued. “It struck me that these are the kinds of things these women need.”

According to Stoneburgh, women in shelters often leave many personal belongings behind, either because of unplanned departures from their homes or limited storage at the shelters.

“Not only me, but everyone who got their baskets were crying,” Smith said. “My daughter said to me, ‘Mommy it’s OK. It’s just a basket. Relax.’ But she didn’t understand how much this means. It feels good to have something you’ve never had before.”

It was the beginning of this year when Jordan Smith and her daughter moved into their new apartment. On moving day, Smith took out her coffee machine and let the espresso brew while she put away her new dish set.

“When my coffee was ready, I went outside to the balcony with my mug,” she said. “And when I drank the first sip, it was amazing, so free. I felt like I could fly.”