What’s in a Christmas Cheer hamper? Dignity. Respect. Kindness. Love.

It’s a bittersweet thing to apply for a Christmas Cheer hamper. For a family whose income doesn’t cover even the basics, Christmas is a heartwrenching time of embarrassment, fatigue, and running to catch up. For a family that’s succumbed to social assistance either through circumstance or to survive, applying for a Christmas Cheer hamper is the lifeline to giving children a smile on Christmas morning.

It’s a bitter feeling to arrive with proof of income and put reality to paper. And it’s sweet because at the other end of an outstretched hand is a community with loving response.

For 24 years, a team of red-sweatered elves has been focussed on providing for the gap between what people have and what they need.

And when the last hamper went out the door with the last family on the Friday before Christmas, a miracle had been worked in our community over a four-day period.

Holly Jones is vice chairman of Christmas Cheer. She’s the logistics person who stood in the empty Event Centre on Essa Rd and contemplated how to organize areas, packing locations, unloading docks, toy distribution and packing sections, food distribution and packing areas. She greets and mobilizes an army of volunteers that just shows up to make at least 50,000 pounds of food make its way into boxes and into waiting arms of grateful recipients.

This Christmas, the Barrie region responded with open arms to enhance the Christmas experience for 1100 families, 200 more than last year. This includes 1,500 children and 500 teenagers. Each hamper contains at least 40 pounds of food, everything for a turkey Christmas dinner, and food for five additional days. If a family has children in it, there are toys for each child under 12 and gift certificates for the Georgian Mall for every teenager.

For Holly Jones, Christmas Cheer is magic at work. She’s been doing this work for eight years now, and is an enthusiastic champion of the generosity of Barrie individuals and businesses. She applauds the efforts of Zehrs stores from which 1100 turkeys are purchased at favourable prices; Sinton Bus Lines which freely picks up Christmas Cheer donations from every Barrie school; corporations who make cash donations and enable their staff to take time off to volunteer on the three hectic sorting and packing days; individuals who make food or toy donations and take time to work the floor of the event centre as the week before Christmas unfolds.

Holly makes sure her own Christmas is completely ready prior to December 1 because Christmas Cheer takes over her personal schedule at that point and her time ceases to be her own. Her employer, Wal-Mart, gives her a flexible schedule so she can make Christmas Cheer her priority. She says from December 1 on, her own family takes over the at-home responsibilities so she’s free to focus on getting 1100 gift hampers out the door.

Pushed to list the highlights from the 2001 campaign, Holly noted the students and teachers at Georgian College who collected Canadian Tire money for several months. With the collected money they bought and donated 30 tricycles and small bicycles to be included in this year’s Christmas Cheer hampers. Seeing all those little vehicles was a high point for Holly this year.

The other high point is the willingness of volunteers to do just about anything that’s requested of them. Holly says she continues to be amazed at people’s generosity… donations from the schools were greater than ever before. “It seemed like we received and unpacked food items and toys forever,” she said.

And for Holly the final high point is the unspoken, and spoken gratitude of the recipients of the Christmas hampers. Hers is the last face they see as volunteers help bundle hampers and bags of toys out to waiting vehicles. She said the simple “thank you” accompanied by a bittersweet smile, is her motivation for coming back year after year.

And what about Ernie Nullmeyer, the grandfather of Christmas Cheer in Barrie? Where is our greatest elf once Christmas is over? Well, anyone who knows Ernie will smile lovingly to know that he’s on a Quebec ski slope with his son, being cared for at a Bed & Breakfast. Well deserved, don’t you think?

Thanks, Ernie. Thanks, Holly. And thanks to literally thousands of Barrie residents who care enough to make a difference.

Happy New Year!