"Creating Kindness" with Gifts for Strangers
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“Creating Kindness” with Gifts for Strangers

The generosity-driven Improv in Toronto mission is back for a second year, and it's gone global.

The 2010 Gifts for Strangers mission started out in Nathan Phillips Square. Photo by Will Penman, courtesy of Improv in Toronto.

According to Shirley MacLaine, “fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.” According to Canadians, Toronto has the same effect. A nationwide poll conducted by Léger Marketing indicates that Toronto is the least-liked city in the country. Of course, for Torontonians, this is hardly breaking news; we know the rest of Canada has long thought us stuck-up, cold, and unfriendly. But with their Gifts for Strangers mission, Improv in Toronto may yet change that perception.

If you’ve ever been goaded into fighting a horde of ninjas near Trinity Bellwoods, then you’re already familiar with Improv in Toronto. The non-profit organization has been running community events—and pranks—in the city since 2008.

On December 17, Improv in Toronto will carry out its second annual Gifts for Strangers mission.

The concept is simple enough: volunteers meet in Nathan Phillips Square at 3 p.m. with inexpensive or even homemade gifts at the ready. From there they travel en masse throughout the city, handing out their presents to passersby.

The message is simple too. For Cole Banning, director of Improv in Toronto, Gifts for Strangers is all about “creating kindness.” Other than that, Banning says, “there is no goal, cause, or statement” behind the mission.

And if you think kindness for kindness’s sake is something the world could use more of, you’re not alone.

Last year, Gifts for Strangers attracted about 30 participants from across the GTA. Since then, the mission has gone international. Banning says the idea has “caught on like wildfire,” noting that “about ten cities around the world have joined us.” These include Seattle, Milwaukee, and Sydney.

Banning says the success of Gifts for Strangers can be attributed to its simple theme of kindness. While there is no single reason why people choose to participate, he feels that “a lot of people hit that moment in their life where it would be nice to see someone reaching out to [them].” This, he says, makes people want to reach out to others. “You give out goodwill and it ends up coming back to you,” Banning remarks. Gifts for Strangers “is just another way to give.”

Of course, the mission isn’t about the gifts themselves, but the thought behind them. Volunteers are encouraged to be creative with their presents. Last year a participant made mixed CDs of “the randomest bands you could ever think of,” according to Banning. Mr. Bungle was one such band. “He spent the whole day looking for someone he thought would be a Mr. Bungle fan,” Banning says with a laugh. Other gifts have included paper crafts, ceramic mugs (complete with packets of hot chocolate), and even dollar store items. “I think that’s the fun of it. It’s so wide open with what you can do.”

While Banning notes that many of the gifts handed out during the mission are given to the homeless, he insists that participants do not focus their generosity on any particular demographic. Gifts are proffered to anybody who looks as though they could use one. “There are gifts given to people who are obviously in need, but I don’t think it’s always obvious,” Banning says. He recounts the story of a woman from Malaysia who was visiting the city last winter: “It was her last day [in Toronto] and she was all alone, so we gave her a gift.”

“It can be as simple as just brightening someone’s day,” Banning says.

With city council ostensibly bent on fiscal restraint (2012 police budget capitulation notwithstanding), the importance of volunteer efforts like Gifts for Strangers has increased. In September, the City voted to eliminate its funding for the Christmas Bureau, an agency that co-ordinates the distribution of gifts to needy families. Although Banning laments the loss of the program, he believes Torontonians have a responsibility to pick up where the Christmas Bureau leaves off. “It’s important to keep that kindness going,” he says. “If the City’s going to make cuts then I think Torontonians have to take it into their own hands.”

Gifts for Strangers offers that opportunity–and all it takes is a Mr. Bungle CD.