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This article was published 25/12/2014 (910 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Chaos swirls around Diana Chartrand as she tries to get her five unruly children seated around the table.
"No, Farell, you sit over here. You gotta leave room for Bill," she says sternly to her nine-year-old before whirling around.
"Evadawn, Brandon, you guys over there, across the table," she says in a strained voice.
Chartrand’s family is part of the roughly 150 people taking advantage of a hot meal and some Christmas spirit courtesy of West Broadway’s Jewish neighbours.
They come every year. If it weren’t for the annual charity meal, Chartrand says her family would have nothing on Christmas morning. Instead they get a warm meal and some presents for the kids.
"This is a huge help. When I was a single mom, Christmas used to really put me in a bind. Being able to come here, I’m grateful for it," she says.
She looks around anxiously. Her two-year-old Harlee starts clambering over the table. Then, from across the room, she spots Bill Trnka, her partner of five years. With a sigh of relief, she hugs him and they both take their seats as volunteer Gordon Turtle recites an aboriginal blessing.
The West Broadway ministry is packed with people eager for food and a small package of useful items like socks, toiletries, mitts, hats and scarves. The annual meal has been put on every year for the last 14 by the Shaarey Zedek synagogue. Jews celebrating Christmas with the homeless and needy may seem puzzling to some, but to volunteer Rosalie Lazar, it makes all the sense in the world.
"There is a basic tenet in Judaism about doing God’s work on earth," Lazar explains.
"The Hebrew word is mitzvah, or sometimes takun olam. It means repairing the world," she said. "Basically it means taking care of everyone, and for us, the community of West Broadway, we see them as our neighbours."
"And besides, we really don’t have anything to do today. Chanukah, for us, is over by now, so it’s a nice way to spend the day," she said.
Tom Boomer understands it, too. One of the senior volunteers at West Broadway Community Ministry, he’s been helping with the annual Christmas day meal since the beginning. All of the food is arranged by Shaarey Zedek, he said, and seeing both religious communities come together is what keeps him coming back, he said.
"That’s what got me. I mean this is the Christmas they write stories about, peace on Earth and everyone working together. I hope that doesn’t sound hokey, because I really believe that," he said.
The meal includes potato salad donated by the Viscount Gort Hotel, Salisbury House provides the desserts, and the main course – chicken pot pies – are purchased from Molly’s Meats at wholesale cost.
Boomer was quick to credit the volunteers from Shaarey Zedek and the wider Jewish community, saying that without them, the whole thing just wouldn’t be possible.
"They usually phone us in late October or early November and ask if we want to run it again this year, and we always say yes. We leave the food totally up to them," he said.
Back at the dining table, Chartrand’s family is finishing up their meal. The kids are starting to horse around a bit, and Trnka suggests they go play some dreidel games for prizes.
It’s a happy moment that Chartrand says she’s fought hard for. When she was 21 she lost her eldest daughter in a custody battle because she was too young to care for her.
"I went to visit her on her fifth birthday, but her father had disappeared with her. It was devastating. I turned to drugs and alcohol," she says.
But with the help of community outreach programs like Harvest, and the Siloam Mission, she was able to slowly turn her life around. She cleaned up before her 14-year-old son Brandon was born, and hasn’t touched booze or drugs since.
Five years ago she met Trnka, and he helped her track down her long-lost daughter, and even scraped together enough money for Chartrand to fly to Edmonton and meet her. Now her daughter is thinking of moving back to Winnipeg, Chartrand said.
There’s a good chance that at next year’s Shaarey Zedek Christmas meal, the Chartrand-Trnka’s will have another family member to share the holiday with.