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Free breakfast at warm gathering

Annual meal aims to boost fire safety

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Nine-year-old Cheyenne Tanasychuk sits inside a fire truck  at the annual Salvation Army breakfast Saturday morning.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Nine-year-old Cheyenne Tanasychuk sits inside a fire truck at the annual Salvation Army breakfast Saturday morning. Photo Store

The orders, barked out from a pair of veteran clowns serving as gracious hosts, were fast and furious in the first couple of hours of the Breakfast With Santa event at the Salvation Army Weetamah Centre Saturday morning.

The annual meal, now 20 years strong, offers a hot breakfast to more than 1,300 people in the downtown, with the intention of not only providing a warm shelter from the bitter cold, but also a lesson in fire safety for children.

The breakfast was started following a tragic fire at a Home Street residence 20 years ago. Three children playing with a lighter in the two-level house started a fire in their room and were trapped upstairs. The parents, sleeping on the main floor, couldn't reach them. By the time firefighters arrived, it was too late. The young children were dead.

"Ever since then, we've had something every December to bring awareness to fire safety for children," said Mark Young, executive director of the Weetamah Centre and the principal organizer of the breakfast. "That (fire) really devastated the community."

Saturday's event started with a candy cane for the kids when they walked in the door. It ended, after the breakfast, with a chance to engage with various individuals dressed as superheroes and cartoon princesses. Naturally, the appearance of Boba Fett and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made for a bit of a mob scene at times.

"Batman stepped on the back of my dress like three times," laughed Amy Sawatzky, who was dressed as Elsa the Snow Queen (with her long ice-blue gown) from the Disney movie Frozen. Sawatzky is a member of the Costume Alliance, a group of people who dress up as various characters to entertain children.

"The kids are really into this. I signed a lot of autographs today."

The on-site fire education -- a fire truck and the mobile Fire Safety House (a simulated home that helps show children the right thing to do in case of fire) -- is an important aspect to the morning. For many, though, the greater significance is in the community breakfast, which offers a chance to rub shoulders with neighbours and strangers at the same time.

"People here are so grateful for this," offered Craig, a North End man who sat with his two sons, ages 8 and 10, as they chowed down on pancakes and sausages. Craig, who didn't want to give his last name, said this month is difficult for him, as it's tough to give his boys everything they want for Christmas. Mornings such as this offer up a nice distraction from the reality of the situation.

"We do the best we can but it's hard sometimes," he said. "I just want to make them as happy as I can. We're going to play hockey after this, right guys?"

The two boys flashed big smiles and nodded approval, which in turn made Craig smile.

For Scott Lanyon, the breakfast has become a part of December for his family. His father, Frank, a retired firefighter, still works the morning shift in the kitchen and also finds a job to do with his two daughters and his sister on the other side of the counter.

Lanyon has been coming for a number of years now. The annual Salvation Army gathering has become a tradition for his family.

"I never really thought about it like that but that's actually what it is now," he said, taking a break from handing out apple slices to those who just finished their breakfast. "You look to do something like this, whether it is driving hampers or volunteering somewhere else, but sometimes you don't have the time for it.

"This is the one day we plan to do it. And we'll be back next year, too."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2013 A5

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