Whoever said a smile can change the world must have been speaking with Ashylynn Fisher. This incredibly motivated volunteer and donor has been helping COSTI clients smile and do much more thanks to her innovative Welcome to Canada Project, a project that provided Smile Boxes and currently, Smile Backpacks to refugee children from around the world.
Her motivation to start this project began with the news of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Ashlynn’s husband is originally from Afghanistan, having arrived in Canada years ago as young boy of 14. While not a refugee, he experienced his own challenges. “I thought of my husband and decided I had to do something,” she says. And with the challenges of his homeland compounded with the Taliban crisis, help was needed more than ever. This is why the beginning of Ashlynn’s philanthropy journey focused on Afghanistan.
The project has ultimately grown in scope and numbers. “It was only once I started delivering the Smile Boxes and Smile Backpacks that I realized there is an incredible number of refugees arriving from all over the world.” Ashlynn has to-date, given out over 1,000 Smile Boxes and Smile Backpacks combined to refugees from Afghanistan, Africa and many other countries.
Her ability to reach many of them and get supplies in hand has been through COSTI and our ability to distribute items through our various shelter locations. This creative and effective partnership has reached hundreds of children. COSTI staff provide lists coordinated by age group, so that packages can be customized according to the child’s needs: 0 to 3 years of age; 3 to 5, 5 to 13, and 13 to 18.
“I have amazing people at COSTI helping me and that means everything to me. Without them, I would not be able to get items to the children. It’s teamwork. In fact, I wish I had reached out sooner,” adds Ashlynn.
Her background as an Early Childhood Educator helped inform her decisions about what to assemble so that packages would have both an immediate and a longer-term impact. “I want the children to feel welcome receiving the packages, but also want to provide them with something that occupies their minds. This is why every package in addition to toys and other items includes a book,” she says.
It’s very important to assess the needs of different age groups. For example, the older teenage girls and boys receive much-needed hygiene products, jewellery, etc. while newborns receive baby blankets and other items.
Ashlynn’s Welcome Project evolved from cellophane wrapped baskets to the more practical backpack idea, and there were several reasons for the switch. “I wanted to eliminate the wastefulness of the baskets, and keep the items in another item the children could eventually use.” The children were also able to see through the cellophane, and she didn’t want any hurt feelings or confusion about what some children were receiving and others were not. Hence the switch from Smile Baskets to Smile Backpacks.
This stay-at-home mom’s initiative continues to grow with participation from local schools, and other individuals from community. She is extremely grateful to have COSTI as a key partner and connector to the people who need help the most. “The items are good quality and over time, I’ve built trust and strong relationships with many people: donors, schools, and other volunteers.
“I feel like I need to do whatever I can to help provide the children with gifts that will keep them occupied while staying with COSTI and hopefully help them feel welcome and accepted in our beautiful country.” Ashlynn hopes to become incorporated as a charity in late fall 2022.