Southwestern Manitoba non-profit races to meet food hamper needs for holidays

Christmas Cheer volunteers in Southwestern Manitoba were wishing for snow Saturday, hoping the weather would inspire donations for holiday hampers.

Jim Cobb, board member with Brandon and Westman Christmas Cheer, was on hand for the annual Fill the Bus event at a local Brandon grocery store Saturday. The goal of the day is to fill a City of Brandon transit bus with goodies for families in need over the holidays.

“At Christmas time … our intent, is to let them have at least one good day at Christmas with a toy and meals,” Cobb said. “More people are in need at this time of year. We’re fortunately not in that position, but more and more people are.”

Volunteers are hard at work preparing for the 2022 holiday season he said, although they have had to purchase many items as donations are coming slower than usual.

“That’s totally understandable with the economic times and the price of groceries for everything,” Cobb said.

He expects Christmas Cheer will be packing more food hampers for the holidays as “the world’s a little more needier than it was other years.”

Cash donations are helpful as they can help volunteers buy items that are not always donated — such as pricey baby food or toys for tots. He said these funds help stretch out what Christmas Cheer can offer as they deal with soaring costs of goods.

A man places food donations in a giant cardboard box wrapped like a present.
Brandon and Westman Christmas Cheer volunteer Cyril Fox collects donations. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“We’re on a very tight budget for toys. So the cash donations that we get also allow us to maybe spend a little more money on the toys because they are expensive and our budget is limited.”

Cyril Fox helps run the Fill The Bus event. He said COVID-19, inflation and the lack of snow on the ground seemed to be playing a role in donations coming in slower.

“We’re sort of back in gear, but I don’t think it’s in full swing yet, for some reason it just doesn’t feel like it yet,” he said.

Once the bus is filled, Fox will help create hampers at the Christmas Cheer headquarters in the heart of downtown Brandon. The headquarters get busy as the holiday season kicks in, Fox said, and volunteers become as wrapped up in Christmas prep as the elves in Santa’s workshop.

It’s been a good year so far for Christmas Cheer, said volunteer Nick Vandale, but this is the “calm before the storm” when food hamper packing begins Monday.

Hampers and presents are delivered in mid-December. Vandale expects at least 1,200 will be sent throughout Westman.

In a typical year, Christmas Cheer volunteers produce more than 1,000 hampers for Westman families that are delivered over two days.

All people applying for a hamper must be referred through a social agency such as school liaison workers, Child and Family Services, the Brandon Friendship Centre, Prairie Mountain Health, Samaritan House or social services.

Families with children are the main focus for hampers, and individuals who apply for hampers are prioritized based on when an order is placed.

Volunteers carry food donations onto a city bus.
Christmas Cheer volunteers fill a bus with food and toy donations. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Vandale said the Christmas Cheer headquarters will be packed with rows of food and a core group of volunteers creating hampers in the lead-up to deliveries.

It can be challenging meeting the needs of Manitoba’s second-largest city, as the non-profit is also dealing with inflation, Vandale said, making every donation count.

Fill The Bus helps meet these demands. Vandale said last year they were able to fill two city buses “right up” with donations.

“It’s a little slower, but we’re doing OK,” Vandale said. “Hopefully everybody has a great Christmas and we do all right this year.”

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