Christmas Cheer Board flooded with pleas for help, sees 40,000 calls on opening day

Winnipeg’s Christmas Cheer Board is experiencing demand far above any year in recent memory, with 40,000 calls on Monday, the opening day of the 2022 campaign.

There were more than 13,000 calls in the first hour alone, executive director Shawna Bell told CBC Manitoba Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Tuesday

“Last year, our first day was 23,000 so it’s a significant increase over last year for sure,” she said. “There just seems to be a real desperate need for food out there.”

Every year at this time, the charity assembles hampers with toys, food and other items that it then delivers, with the help of an army of volunteers, to families across Winnipeg living below the poverty level.

It was started in 1919 by a number of Winnipeg churches to help widows and orphans of the soldiers lost during the First World War. It has evolved over the years but its aim remains the same — helping the city’s less fortunate. Those who qualify can apply for a hamper for themselves or their household.

Bell knew there would be an increased demand this year as food prices and the cost of living continue to soar, which is why the phone lines for applicants were opened a week earlier than usual.

However, she says, the extent of the demand was shocking.

“It’s rough out there and people just are trying to stretch those dollars to to actually just feed themselves as little as they can for as long as they can,” Bell said, noting it’s physically impossible to respond to 40,000 on the same day.

The calls go into a queue through the cheer board and through the province’s Employment and Income Assistance program. On average, about 80 calls can be processed an hour, Bell says.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Bell said. “We’re a volunteer organization and we’re going to make sure we can answer as many of those calls as we can.”

Demand growing

It typically delivers about 18,000 hampers each Christmas season to individuals and families living below the poverty level — far less than the demand this year.

“We’ve been working with a number of different social agencies throughout the year just trying to get ready for this year [but] I think everybody is kind of in the same circumstance as we are,” Bell said, adding the cheer board might need to consider something it has never done before: asking the province for help.

“If there’s a need to — and maybe there is this year — that’s something that will have to look into,” Bell said. “It’s something we haven’t done but these are unprecedented times too, so that’s a possibility for sure.”

As for the general public, any help though donations or by volunteering would be welcomed by the cheer board, she says.

“I think food is very important to get out there … canned vegetables, canned fruit, pasta, spaghetti sauce, a lot of the staple items. Those are very, very important for us for packing the hampers,” Bell said.

“Anything that we can get in that way is is greatly appreciated and we will take it at our 1821 Wellington Avenue location. And just any opportunity that people have, if they’re interested in supporting us, they can call us at 989-5680 and we’ll be happy to help them.”

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