Glen Fraser helps a Mexican family that lost all of its belongings in Hurricane Jimena last year.
DEVON — In Guaymas, Mexico, he is known as the Canadian Santa Claus.
For 28 years, Glen Fraser, from Devon, Alta., has been helping the families at Mission Santa Clara by bringing them clothes, candy and toys every Christmas.
He and his wife Joyce were snowbirds, holidaying in the wintertime. In 1981, they did some back-road travelling in Mexico.
Off the beaten path, down a decrepit road intended for horse trailers, they stumbled upon Mission Santa Clara. People there lived in abject poverty, with children having ragged clothes, parents without money, families residing in tarpaper shacks, walls made of soggy cardboard. Their only resource was selling handmade bricks.
Deeply unsettled by the poverty, Fraser turned to his wife and said, "Get me the hell out of here!"
As they were leaving, they met Franciscan Father Lyle Chrobak. He was ordained a priest in Chicago in 1980, assigned to Mission Santa Clara soon after, and has been there ever since. Chrobak asked the Frasers to remember the people of Santa Clara in their prayers.
As the saying goes, "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." Therefore, when the couple returned to Canada, Fraser started thinking about those poverty-stricken people, especially the poor children.
"I told my wife that there must be something we can do to help those children. Let's start by getting them some clothes," said Fraser.
When they returned to Mexico the following year, they chanced upon Chrobak again, saying Mass at a nearby church in San Carlos.
"He asked who we were going to give the clothes to, and I said they were for him. He said, 'I don't believe it. I prayed to God that we would get some clothes for the children, and here you come with clothes. You must be angels.'
"That was how we got started," said Fraser.
His wife Joyce has since died, and Fraser has had worsening health problems, including two heart surgeries and being diagnosed with cancer.
But the annual trek to Santa Clara — five days of steady driving — has never ceased. He, his daughter Gail and granddaughter Jessica leave for Mexico again on Dec. 7. They will haul a 14-foot cargo trailer, loaded to the gills with toy-filled shoeboxes.
Over the years, his friends and fellow parishioners have donated clothes, money, candy and hygiene products. About 10 years in, following on the success of Operation Christmas Child, they started taking shoeboxes full of toys and essentials for the children.
The children are always appreciative of what they receive.
Gail gave a doll to a little girl, and she said, "It was like she had a million dollars in her hand. She was so thankful. My second oldest (Jessica) came down with us four years ago, and she couldn't get over the fact they have nothing, so how could they have smiles and still be happy?"
Every year, Fraser got a deeper feeling about charity. The tiny pebble of charity thrown into the waters years ago continues making wider circles. They kept getting more and more donations of all kinds every year from schools and generous individuals throughout the Edmonton Archdiocese. In 2009, more than 700 boxes were delivered, and this year the number will exceed 950.
They also raise money for scholarships, allowing the children to find hope through education and career opportunities. Children from the mission have gone on to become an architect, dentist and social worker.
"The kids see there is hope for them if they work to get out of the poverty that they're in," said Gail. "The people we've helped have come back every year to help us unload the boxes. They are there to help my dad because they have never forgotten what my dad did for them."
Unlike some charities where some money goes towards administration costs, Fraser said people are open to giving to his cause because they know 100 per cent of their donation goes directly to the people at Mission Santa Clara. Fraser pays for his own fuel, food, hotel and other travel expenses associated with the trip.
Several years ago they raised enough money through donations to build a church, which was later destroyed in Hurricane Jimena, the second strongest tropical cyclone of the 2009 Pacific hurricane season.
"The church pews were swept away in the wind and rain. In the hurricane, they lost everything. Last year, when we went there, after it was all over, Father Lyle said they were right back where they were in 1980 - they had nothing again," said Fraser.
Fraser has now set his sights on helping more children farther south, a tribe of Yaqui Indians also living in poverty.
Gail said her father could be on his deathbed, but once the trip draws near, he is reenergized and full of life.
"Every time he does this trip to Mexico, you can just see him light up. He just loves to do it," said Gail. "The doctors say every year he has so many things wrong with him that he shouldn't go to Mexico.
"But once he starts the planning, he gets that inner strength, and he's capable of going year after year. He gets that inner strength because he knows the kids are waiting for us."
Fraser said he intends on writing a book about his experiences helping Mission Santa Clara.
The cutoff date this year for collecting items is Nov. 28. Anyone wanting to donate money, clothes, toys or toiletries can reach Glen Fraser at 470-3333 or Gail Fraser at 460-5470.