At 17 years old, married, pregnant but alone with a sick baby in the other room, Lola Dawn Fennell sat in the dark on Christmas Eve fretting over the last of the diluted cream of wheat she had just fed the baby, wondering where the next meal was going to come from.
There came a knock on the door and carolers regaled the sad young woman with a few songs as tears poured down her face.
When the songs came to an end, Fennell told the group of merry makers that she knew it was tradition to offer a donation and to invite them in for refreshments.
"But I had to tell them I didn't have anything," said Fennell, who is now the general manager for the Prince George Council of Seniors.
Recalling that terrible time still brings tears to her eyes.
"The carolers said 'we know you don't have anything' and they brought boxes and boxes of food into the house, gifts for the baby, maternity clothes for me and it was absolutely amazing - and to this day I still don't know how they knew I was in such need but I was certainly grateful. So, having been a hamper recipient I understand how important these hampers are to people."
There are four main non-profit organizations that provide Christmas hampers to those in need in Prince George.
In cooperation with one another the Prince George Council of Seniors, St. Vincent de Paul's Society, The Prince George Native Friendship Centre and the Prince George Salvation Army combined provide more than 1,000 Christmas hampers to those in need each year.
Council of Seniors
"Thank you for remembering that many of our Christmas hamper recipients are managing chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart and kidney disease," said Fennell. "By donating healthier foods you are helping Prince George Council of Seniors support hamper recipients to achieve and maintain better health. Prince George is a small community with a big heart and we thank you all for donating to this very important project."
The council, which only does hampers at Christmas time, is sticking to the basics this year for the contents of the 200 hampers that will be distributed and will not accept personal gifts like socks, hats or puzzle books or any scented products like soaps, lotions or scented candles, homemade preserves or baking.
The Council of Seniors provides Christmas hampers for low-income seniors, 55 and older.
Applicants are asked to provide information about their household income and expenses to determine eligibility.
The goal is to provide enough food for a festive and nutritional Christmas dinner as well as a week's worth of food. Special attention to low sodium and whole grain products would be appreciated. Items like skim milk powder, tins of evaporated milk, and smaller portion sizes should be considered as many hamper recipients live alone. Larger packages of dried foods such as pasta, rice, oatmeal and other hot cereals and lentils are recommended.
There is always a need for volunteers and those interested in helping to sort the food donations, put the hampers together and deliver hampers, can call the Resource Centre at 250-564-5888.
Applications are available at the Seniors Resource Centre, 721 Victoria St., Monday to Friday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Applications must be returned before Dec. 8. Volunteers will be going to several local seniors' residences to help with hamper applications. Dates and times will be posted at 1010 Liard, Laurier Manor, Aspen 1 and 2, and Alward Place.
Hampers will be delivered on Dec. 21 or 22. The Prince George Council of Seniors depends completely on donations to fill hampers and gratefully accepts cash and grocery-store cards, or non-perishable food items. Charitable tax receipts will be provided for donations $20 and greater.
All donations need to be received by Dec. 11.
"The Prince George Council of Seniors is thrilled to be partnering with the Prince George Citizen newspaper this year, who will provide the space to store the non-perishables and help organize the hampers in preparation for delivery," said Fennell.
Non-perishable food items will be accepted at the Prince George Citizen office, 150 Brunswick St., Monday to Friday from 9 am. to 5 p.m. and cash or gift card donations can be donated at the Seniors Resource Centre, 721 Victoria St.
Society of St. Vincent de Paul Prince George
St. Vincent de Paul's Society usually gives out about 250 hampers to families at Christmas with about 65 being specifically sponsored by groups, individuals or companies where the hamper has a few extras including gifts for each family member, special toys for the children and even clothing.
"Most people make the sponsored hampers special," said Bernie Goold, chair of the
St. Vincent's de Paul's Society local board.
"They put a lot of work into it."
When people fill out a hamper application form at St. Vincent's they are given the option to fill out another more detailed form in order for them to have a chance of being sponsored.
"We take down things like the age of the children, their likes, and clothing sizes," said Goold, who has volunteered with St. Vincent de Paul's Society for more than 30 years. "People are very generous and it's a very precious part of providing hampers to those in need at Christmas."
For a St. Vincent de Paul hamper, families can apply at the building the City of Prince George has generously donated for the cause at 1043 Fifth Ave., directly across from the Service BC office, said Goold.
Hamper applications will be accepted starting Tuesday,
Nov. 17 from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. and each week will be available Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays until Nov. 27, then the last three days for applications are Dec. 1 to 3 from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m.
To be considered to be sponsored, families must apply by
When applying for a St. Vincent de Paul hamper, families are asked to bring each family member's care card and proof of address like a utility bill or rent receipt.
"We have a lot of working poor in our community and they are welcome to apply for a hamper as well," said Goold. "Sometimes people just need a hand up at Christmas. They are keeping their heads above water but when there comes a special time, there just isn't the funds for it."
Many believe to apply for a hamper people need to be on income assistance or a disability pension.
"But sometimes there's special circumstances and people are welcome to come along and have a chat with one of our volunteers who are taking the applications," said Goold. "We are very blessed to be able to do this - to make life a little brighter for those challenged by poverty - but we are only as strong as those who support us. You know we don't have any special funds for this and the donations of food and money really play an integral part - an incredible part - of the hamper program and all our work. We are so grateful that the community continues to be such supporters of the things we do."
Each hamper consists of enough food for a week to 10 days, and a turkey along with all the trimmings for Christmas dinner, a gift for each of the children in the family as well as a little something extra for each adult, too.
To donate to St. Vincent de Paul's, drop by 1220 Second Ave. Monday to Friday or Saturday and Sunday mornings or call 250-564-7871.
To volunteer for any of the
St. Vincent de Paul Society's projects visit www.ssvdppg.com.
Prince George Native Friendship Centre
Everyone is welcome to apply for a Christmas hamper from the Native Friendship Centre, which will be giving out about 150 hampers this year. Application forms are available during the month of November at the front desk of The Gathering Place, 1600 Third Avenue, Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Applicants must bring verification of name and address in the form of a recent piece of mail. That is all that is required.
"We have an annual budget based on past numbers and we know that for many of the vulnerable people who access the food hamper programs we know that they may not have other Christmas options so we like to bump up the number of things available," said Barbara Ward-Burkitt, executive director for the Native Friendship Centre.
To bring some extra holiday cheer, included in the hamper is food items to not only make Christmas dinner but Christmas breakfast as well.
Distribution is on Dec. 14 and there are about 20 people, mostly staff members, who help with the entire project.
"I think our experience is the same as the Salvation Army and St. Vincent's in that the demand for Christmas hampers is high but the demand for hampers going into the new year is also high so for our regular food bank program lots of people find themselves lacking the basics and that goes from January through to March so anything that can fit into that category like canned soups and vegetables, juices, pasta, canned tomato sauce, Kraft dinner, rice, peanut butter and jam - anything that has a shelf life that we can carry into the new year would be a real asset," said Emma Faulkner, health department team leader at the Native Friendship Centre.
Many people on income assistance receive their December cheque a week earlier than usual, which means there's a five-week wait for the regular payment in January, said Ward-Burkitt.
"That's a long time between cheques and that can create a lot of stress, especially when people are trying to provide something special at Christmas time," she added.
"It's really a privilege for the Friendship Centre to be able to help people in the community in this way. We know because of our regular hamper program that there is a huge need and it's a privilege and an honour to ensure that the folks that access the hamper program who are our family and who are vulnerable get the help they need.
"We make sure when we deliver the hampers that we are very respectful and we touch base with them to make sure they are doing OK and I think that's critically important because in my experience people don't like asking for help so we keep the process as respectful as possible."
Donations are welcome and accepted at the reception desk at the Native Friendship Centre.
Each year the local Salvation Army gives out between 300 and 500 Christmas hampers.
The Salvation Army offers hampers to individuals as well as families.
To apply people are invited to attend at the Christmas Wish Centre, 2221 Quinn St., Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays during the month of November from 9:30 to
11:30 a.m. To apply people need to bring picture ID for each adult and a medical card for each child, proof of income for each adult and a list of expenses like rent, heat and hydro, Roy Law, the Sally Ann's community ministries director, said.
It takes about 200 volunteers to make the Salvation Army Christmas hamper program a success.
"On hamper packing day, we usually have Grade 7 and 8 classes come in and we actually create an assembly line," said Neil Wilkinson, Prince George Salvation Army Captain. There are lists of items to go into each hamper geared for one and two people, three and four people, five and six people and so on, he added.
Once the students are shown how it's done they do the packing themselves.
"It's a really great way for us to educate young people about what's happening in the community," said Wilkinson.
Leading up to the packing of the hampers, volunteers lay out the food to make it as easy as possible to assemble the hampers quickly and accurately, added Wilkinson.
Volunteers also help store the contents of the hampers as well.
From the public the Salvation Army is asking for cash donations or gift cards to grocery stores. The Salvation Army takes the cash and purchases what's required for the hampers by the pallet-load from those local retailers who have been generous to them throughout the year. Wilkinson said he knows that throughout the year one emergency food hamper will get a brand name item while another could get a generic name item and all things being equal, the Salvation Army wants the same items to go into each Christmas hamper.
The gift cards will be included in the hamper so that the person who gets the hamper can make their own meat choice. Some people want a turkey while others prefer ham or something else, said Wilkinson.
"We want to provide dignity to those people requiring assistance because if you have to ask for help it's hard and we want to make it as good as possible," said Wilkinson. So they take the food that comes into the food bank at Christmas time and restock the shelves because January can be a tough month for some people, too.
The main service centre at 3500 18th Ave. is where people can make food donations to support the Salvation Army food bank.
The Christmas Kettle campaign is how the Salvation Army funds its annual operations, including, in part, the Christmas hamper effort.
"So we use some of the money at Christmas time and we make sure that all of the need is met first and foremost because that's donor intent and the other funds that aren't used for Christmas are used to support the ongoing operations of the Salvation Army throughout the other 11 months of the year," said Wilkinson.
The Salvation Army is the ambassador for the community, he added.
"The Salvation Army in and of themselves is a small church community and we don't have the resources to do the work that we do," said Wilkinson.
"We count on the community to partner with us to do the work that we do. So for us it's over-the-top humbling to be able to accept donations on behalf of the community and do the good work that we do for the community. So a big thank you goes out to the community that continually supports us and it means the world to us to have that trust and have that opportunity to be the ambassadors for the community."