Sharon Gilroy-Dreher, the founder of ToastyToes has been providing new socks to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness to help keep their feet warm and dry.
The first time Gilroy-Dreher collected socks was in 2013 while still grieving her mother’s passing.
“She used to say ‘when you’re feeling sorry for yourself you should go and do something for somebody else, take your mind off your troubles,’ Gilroy-Dreher said.
She tried to think of a way to honour her mother, who grew up in the damp cold of Northern Ireland, always had cold feet and loved giving socks to people.
Then, Gilroy-Dreher got an email from Leadership Waterloo Region asking to collect socks for Out of The Cold Foundation.
“I thought, oh my gosh this is perfect,” she said.
ToastyToes was launched, and Gilroy-Dreher started reaching out to friends and family for donations. Though she had initially hoped for 80 pairs to celebrate her mother’s 80th birthday but expected less, she received 452 pairs of socks that year.
The next year in 2014, a friend working in the shelter system asked Gilroy-Dreher if she would be collecting socks again. He explained that people donate clothes when they no longer fit, but people wear socks until they’re worn out.
“People didn’t donate socks, but it was the number one thing they needed. It’s also not a need that’s easily fixed, because socks are a consumable like food. Folks who are experiencing homelessness are wearing through and consuming socks,” Gilroy-Dreher said.
The same group of family and friends who donated to ToastyToes the first year sent in 1000 socks. By 2015, Gilroy-Dreher thought she would start asking the public for donations and received 12,389 pairs of socks. In 2016, she received 32,400 pairs, filling almost all of the main floor of her house.
Organizations around the region were coming to her home to pick up what they needed and distribute them to people experiencing homelessness.
“They would walk in the door and I’d say ‘what would you like?’ They’d say ‘I’ll take as many as I can.’ ‘How about we fill your vehicle?’ They’d ask ‘can we do that?’ ‘We can!’” Gilroy-Dreher said.
In 2019, the City of Kitchener offered ToastyToes space at Stanley Park Community Centre and with over 100 groups collecting donations, they received 40,500 pairs of socks.
Then the pandemic hit, and by June 2020 Gilroy-Dreher thought there was no way she could hold a sock campaign. So she reached out to the organizations and shelters that they donate the socks to, assessing what was needed.
“Usually, they tell me the socks they get run out by the summer. When we started to provide 40,000 pairs, that was getting [people experiencing homlessness] through to the early part of the fall, but they needed to replenish.”
Gilroy-Dreher started thinking of solutions to overcome the COVID-19 restrictions, from a public health perspective and decided to propose pivoting to a monetary donation model.
“There was almost a sigh of relief because while they are really grateful for massive donations [of socks], it’s hard to manage logistically. They don’t often have [enough] space.”
“Surprisingly, there’s been an increase in the number of women and kids socks that are asked for, and so we support a bunch of agencies. Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region for women going through their Anti-Human Trafficking Program, House of Friendship, One Roof, and many others.”
After officially setting up the ToastyToes monetary fund, they did something different this year, reaching out to customer-facing businesses, retail and food services.
ToastyToes also connected with Civilian Screen Printing which ran a shop online until midnight on Halloween, where the proceeds were donated to those in need.
ToastyToes’ campaign for 2020 started mid-October and raised $22,500 in two weeks. This year it runs until December 10 — an extra month longer than previous years. Gilroy-Dreher also started a coffee campaign, where she urges people to skip their morning coffee and donate the funds.
“Every $2.00 is a pair of socks, and there’s no donation too small. So if you want to skip your coffee one day and donate, you can donate on our fund page, there’s no amount that’s too tiny. If everybody donated one pair of socks, can you imagine how wonderful that would be?”
Gilroy-Dreher describes herself as a sock lady, and often has bags of socks in her car, ready to give out to those in need.
“The joy on their face is unbelievable. Up at Northfield and King, there was somebody up on the corner, I said ‘I don’t have any money but can I give you some socks’ and it was a really rainy miserable day. He just looked at me and said ‘my feet are soaking, thank you so much!’ … and then he hugged them and put them inside his coat.”
Gilroy-Dreher says she’s amazed at how our community comes together to help people in need:
“I make the ask and then I sit back and watch the magic happen.”