Stopping the Cycle of Foster Care and Homelessness

Aunt Leah's Tree Lots

Open each winter season, Aunt Leah’s lots sell high-quality Christmas trees and accessories, including stands, wreaths, swags and greenery, across Metro Vancouver.  The lots are run by a combination of employees and volunteers and also provides training and employment opportunities to at-risk youth.  For over 20 years these lots have been raising money to fund the organization’s programs that help prevent children in foster care from becoming homeless and young mothers from losing custody of their children. 

“What we do at Aunt Leah’s is to stop the cycle of homelessness and foster care by providing housing and a family-like support system for youth who are aging out of foster care and for young moms,” says executive director Sarah Stewart. “Without a supportive home to go to, these moms—many of whom were foster kids themselves– would be homeless and would lose their babies to the foster care system.”

With tree lot sales volumes and the number of volunteers expanding considerably in 2017 from 2016, Vancity Community Foundation provided support to Aunt Leah’s to update their bookkeeping and point of sale systems, and to create a new marketing strategy. 

After a whirlwind season, 6,191 trees were sold resulting in over $514,000 in gross revenue. This was an increase of 7% in sales in previous years and 11% increase in gross revenue.  Volunteer at Aunt Leah's Tree Lot

 “Vancity Community Foundation’s investment in tablets and a new point of sale system brought massive new efficiencies to our operations”, shared Drew Stewart, Aunt Leah’s director of development.  “We did a leap frog of decades of technology – moving us from pen & paper to real-time tracking of sales, inventory & volunteers at multiple locations.  They literally pushed us into the 21st century. This has saved us hundreds of hours of time in bookkeeping, volunteer coordination, data entry, errors and reconciliation. This has helped our bottom line and has meant more revenue generation going toward supporting BC’s youth from foster care and moms & babies in need.”

An incredible 576 total volunteers contributed more than 3,500 volunteer hours to the tree lots in 2017. Marcia Tait and her daughter Makani were two of this season’s volunteers. Just three years earlier Marcia had turned to Aunt Leah’s Place in desperation. She was homeless, had lost custody of her children, and had little hope.

 “They provided me with stable housing, so I wasn’t homeless anymore. I had a room and we had started setting up more set visits with my children. They taught me a lot of the basic life skills that I had lost or wasn’t taught growing up with my own family,” Marcia said in a recent Vancouver Sun Article. 

Marcia is now a volunteer peer mentor for Aunt Leah’s. She shares her story with other young women when they come looking for help. She is raising Makani in Aunt Leah’s second-stage housing and has been able to make plans for her future. And each year she volunteers together with her daughter at Aunt Leah’s tree lot. 

With this improvement in systems and a huge amount of volunteerism, Aunt Leah’s is able to maximize profits invested into their programs. Staff at Aunt Leah’s are particuarly encouraged about acquiring ownership of a 10-unit apartment building and a five bedroom home. This gives Aunt Leah’s a new capacity to provide affordable rental housing to youth from foster care (through their Link program) plus moms and their babies (through the Thresholds program).  Through these new housing opportunities,  young people will find the stability and affordability they seek in order to complete their education, and re-enter the job market while mom’s like Marcia can maintain custody of their child(ren).

Moved by this organization and its important work in community, the Vancity’s Wealth Advisors made their first contribution from their newly created Donor Advised Fund to Aunt Leah’s Place. 

Top photo credit: Gerry Kahrmann, The Vancouver Sun