LONDON, Ont. -- It was nearly three decades ago, but Carol Deyell still remembers the Christmas morning her son woke her up inside the hotel room they were staying in after losing their home and their pet dog in a devastating fire.

He said, "'Mommy, mommy, mommy there really is a Santa Claus,' and he goes, 'The toys multiplied and the tree grew,'” Deyell recalls.

Friends in the community had gathered and set up a six foot Christmas tree, surprising the family with gifts for Christmas.

A year after the generosity of their friends, Deyell and her husband decided to give back to the community that helped them, by putting together Christmas hampers for 10 local families in need.

The program, dubbed Operation Christmas Hampers, is now in its 25th year and has grown to helping nearly 100 people annually.

It has also expanded to the Giving Tree Program, a collaboration with local schools that have identified families in need.

Deyell says there are 293 teddy bears on a tree inside the Food Basics location at Ernest and Bradley avenues.

Anyone who is interested in helping is encouraged to sign a teddy bear out, purchase the gift on the back, and either return it to the store or drop it off at one of the schools involved.

They include:

  • Ashley Oaks Public School, 121 Ashley Crescent, London, Ont., N6E 3W2
  • Cleardale Public School, 780 Dulaney Drive, London, Ont., N6C 3W4
  • Rick Hansen Public School, 70 Ponderosa Crescent, London, Ont., N6E 2L7
  • White Oaks Public School, 565 Bradley Ave, London, Ont., N6E 3Z8

Deyell says she has an ache in her heart after reading the responses from the families in need.

"Some of the things that are on the wish lists, such as just coats and boots, I feel for these kids, nothing is exorbitant on the lists."

The program runs until Dec. 22.