Saint Johnners Reeling from News of Empty Stocking Fund Closure

Tags: Saint John history, CHSJ, Telegraph Journal, Postmedia, Elaine Boulanger, Empty Stocking Fund, Jillian Bonner, poverty, fundraising, news

Carolyn Trecartin

6/15/2022 8 min read

Image is of Elaine Boulanger and her son, provided by Elaine Boulanger

Saint Johnners are reeling from the news that the Empty Stocking Fund is closing operations after a 109-year-long history.

The Empty Stocking Fund is a beloved holiday event to many locals. It is a live eight-hour telethon which raised funds for local families in need during the Holidays. The whole community came together to lend a helping hand to their neighbours. The money raised was distributed to local families as gift cards which they used to put presents under the Christmas tree for children who would otherwise go without.

I recall performing one or two years at the annual Christmas telethon when I sang in the Island View Elementary School choir. It was so exciting to perform on live television with my peers and then watch myself on TV from the VHS recording after I got home.

The Empty Stocking Fund means a lot to many communities in the Saint John region and will be missed by all.

Inflation is making it more difficult to get by, even for people with steady income. Imagine how trying it must be, come Christmas time, for a single parent on Employment Insurance, who’s already behind, to give their children something special. How inadequate those parents must feel even needing to ask for help. If this is or was you, you are not inadequate! Saint Johnners have a reputation for being blue-collar, working-class folks; and, for those also affected by poverty, racism, disability, addiction or mental health struggles, matters are exponentially worse. It is good to receive support from your community when you need it.

In fact, there are roughly 2,000 local families each year who rely on the gift cards handed out to make the Holidays happen in their homes. It was over 2,500 families in 2019.

The Empty Stocking Fund brought holiday joy to all local families, though, not just those affected by poverty. It always took place the weekend before the Santa Claus Parade, towards the end of November. It kicked off the Holiday season for the whole City!

Just about every household in town had at least one young relative to tune in for, be it their child, grandchild, niece or nephew. This gave us a reason to keep watching, and of course, to donate.

The community would always tune in with excitement to hear the final pledge tally in the days following the show. Last year the Fund reached its highest annual donation total yet – an impressive amount in excess of $260,000.

The Empty Stocking Fund began back in 1912, if you can believe it, before World War I even began.

ESF’s origin story, as stated on CanadaHelps.Org, says, “It was a few nights before Christmas when a reporter for the old Saint John Evening Standard (now the Telegraph Journal)—Harry (Dutch) Ervin – saw two poor children looking at a department store’s toy display from the street. When he returned to the newsroom, he passed the hat and collected $30 to buy Christmas gifts for Saint John’s needy children. Soon, word spread of Harry’s crusade and by Christmas Eve, the pot had grown to $700.” That was a lot of money back then, equivalent to well over $17,000 today. In 1918, at the close of the First World War, the paper had “been collecting money for the poor at Christmas via several charities. In December 1918, the paper “decided to combine them under the Santa Claus Fund raising money for war widows and their children.” Some money was also sent to Vancouver, undergoing economic depression at the time.

Initially the paper appealed to its readers for donations. Eventually it became a radiothon hosted by CHSJ, the local Saint John radio station.

The Fund always did well, even in 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression, Saint Johnners donated a record $23,605. That is worth about $384,350 in today’s money.

As the Depression hit everyone hard, Saint John was no exception; donations waned.

In 1939 the paper decided to put a pause on its fundraising activities as Canada entered the Second World War.

It was resurrected in 1954 when it was relaunched under the name The Empty Stocking Fund.

I’m unsure of when exactly the fundraiser changed from the radio format to the present-day telethon. Elaine Boulanger, longtime volunteer for the Empty Stocking Fund, says “Its been on TV for at least 40 years now."

"Each year’s donations are given out in the following year.", she said. "So local families in need will still receive gift cards from last year’s donations this coming Holiday season. But after that it’s finished”, she said.

The news broke to many on June 13th when Elaine shared a screenshot of the news posted on Empty Stocking Fund’s website. The post went viral, she said, and her phone has been buzzing ever since.

Boulanger has been involved with the fundraiser since she was 8. She, too, began singing at the telethon as a young choir girl with Island View. In Junior High, she went to Barnhill, where she met Maureen Beckwith, the school choir director, who became a longtime mentor of hers. “She was very responsible for the work I do now with different churches.”, said Boulanger. Beckwith was the choir director for Barnhill Memorial at the time. Boulanger’s piano skills were quite strong, so in addition to Elaine’s choir duties, Beckwith tasked her with accompanying the choir when she was only 13.

Elaine Boulanger said when Beckwith became director of the Simonds High choir, as well, Beckwith brought her along to accompany them too. As Elaine accompanied various school choirs and participated in the Empty Stocking Fund in her youth, she took on more responsibility in adulthood, eventually becoming the Program Coordinator, and was responsible for putting the show together.

She said her “head’s just spinning from the news” she got yesterday that the ESF would never take place again. “When I first saw that Brunswick News [previously owned by the local Irving family] was sold to Postmedia, out of Ontario, I had a sickening feeling. That’s the first thing I worried about, ‘What will happen to the Empty Stocking Fund?’ They told us “Don’t worry, It’ll still be a-go.” But evidently something changed.

“I have nothing against Postmedia”, said Elaine. “But they’re not from here. They don’t know the community. It’s not personal to them.”

“This event needs a major sponsor. Yes, many people volunteer their time to run the show, but there are still expenses.”

I asked Elaine to share her favourite memory of the Empty Stocking Fund. “It was 1992. I was in the St. Mac’s choir. I was in the wings of the CHSJ stage getting ready to go on. Ellen McKinney was performing “Come, Let Us Worship the King” in her red skirt and top.” She just remembers “the joy and wonder of watching her, being so mesmerized and exhilarated by this jaw-dropping performance.” She still has the video on VHS and has shown it to just about all her music students.

I asked Elaine how the loss of the Stocking Fund would affect young musicians and the performers. She said “For musicians it’s fun and enjoyable. It’s a staple in the community. It’s a historical event. But it affects us less. It’s not about us. For us it’s the loss of nostalgia. There are other opportunities for vocalists to perform.” Yet she acknowledged that the fundraising recipients weren’t necessarily separate from the families who sang in the choirs. She estimated that in any of her music classes presently, probably about 1 in 10 requires assistance.

Jillian Bonner, a Saint Johnner and vocal teacher at Alison Dawn Voice & Music, performed solo at the Empty Stocking Fund from ages 12-17 and in choirs over the same period of time. I asked her on what the loss of the Empty Stocking Fund would mean for the community.

“It’s especially devastating for the less fortunate children of Saint John who benefitted from this event. The Empty Stocking Fund was really important because it highlighted the needs of others while also giving young musicians a platform in a place where there isn’t anything else like it.”

She said this would be a big loss for the local arts community. “The Empty Stocking Fund was always a big performance moment when I was a kid. That makes me incredibly sad as a musician that we have lost this performance opportunity for the next generation.”

Elaine Boulanger agreed that although the show’s focus was always on those in need, it played a big role in the lives of the kids in the show too. As the Program Coordinator, she had the tough job of watching auditions and deciding which acts would make the show. Despite its eight-hour length, it was a competitive process to land a solo. With pledge readers and school choirs, sometimes there wasn’t time for all the soloists who auditioned. She recalled some occasions of hurt feelings from those who hadn’t been chosen.

On Boulanger’s Facebook post breaking the news, many people commented offering support to keep the show going. But she said “At this point, it’s over. It has to be. Legally-speaking, we can’t use the name anymore. The legalities have all been sorted.”

She said she’s optimistic the fundraiser will continue on under another name in the future and was impressed by the number of people offering support when hearing of the Fund’s closure. “But I need all the people who say they’re going to help, to actually help.” There’s never been an issue with shortage of volunteers to lend a hand here and there to keep it going, but “the job of Program Coordinator is a 14-hour/day job”, she said.

“In the beginning, all of the administrative work was done by Telegraph Journal staff, and it was expected that they would do this on top of their regular duties. Eventually there needed to be a paid Coordinator for the ESF. “Coordinating over 400 volunteers, and the admin work of figuring out how to get the money out and to whom, after raising the money is a big job. Plus there was lots of work through the year, calling various sponsors and churches.”

The Empty Stocking Fund thanks all its volunteers and sponsors who allowed the show to go on for so long. One thing’s for sure. The entire community will greatly miss this annual Saint John Holiday tradition.

Did you like this story? Get more right in your inbox!