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Variety CEO pulls on Santa suit in the St. Nick of time for Winter Wonderland parties for kids

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Jeff Liba had some big boots to fill on Tuesday morning — and he’ll be squeezing into them again today.

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Opinion

Jeff Liba had some big boots to fill on Tuesday morning — and he’ll be squeezing into them again today.

At the last moment, Liba was forced to slip into a red-velvet suit to portray Santa Claus at two Winter Wonderland parties organized by Variety, the Children’s Charity of Manitoba, for hundreds of economically disadvantaged schoolchildren in Winnipeg.

The CEO of Variety was pressed into the role of Kris Kringle when the organization’s longtime Santa, yours truly, was knocked out of the holiday sleigh by a last-minute positive test for COVID-19.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Harmayra Side, grade one student from Brooklands School, talks to Amber Westra as Elsa at Variety’s annual Winter Wonderland party.

The festive folks at Variety have organized two glitzy Winter Wonderland parties — Nov. 22 and 23 at the downtown Delta Hotel Winnipeg — in hopes of making a special holiday memory for more than 900 economically disadvantaged kids from seven Winnipeg schools.

While he has organized these holiday shindigs for years, Tuesday marked the first time Variety’s CEO has had to pull on Santa’s big black boots and strut his stuff in public as Jolly Old St. Nick.

“I’m in! Of course, I’m in!” Liba said after I informed him via phone I’d been sidelined by the coronavirus. “I’m heartbroken that you’re sick. These kids have never known anyone else but you as Santa.

“I’ll do a good job but maybe not too good a job, because I don’t want them calling for me next year.”

He concedes it will be touch stressful being a rookie Santa in front of a record number of excited schoolchildren over the course of two days.

“Every elf works hard and I guess there’s a reward if you have been making toys long enough,” Liba quips. “You get promoted. It’s time for me to take on the role of head elf. Now I’m just going to need some good coaching. This is an honour to be asked to step in and fill your rather large shoes.”

Before Tuesday’s party, however, the charity executive had to quickly visit local costume rental store Mallabar to obtain a slightly smaller Santa suit than my double-extra-large version. And he confessed to a minor case of stage fright.

“Even if it’s terrifying, I can pretend it’s not,” he vows before his first appearance. “Whatever nerves I might have are far less important than the excitement and joy I can bring for the kids on these two days.”

The two holiday parties are a welcome bright spot for kids from Brooklands, David Livingston, Elwick, River Elm, King Edward, William Whyte and Stanley Knowles schools as Manitoba deals with a triple-whammy respiratory virus season, with COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases jamming hospitals in the province.

On both days, the kids are treated to a child-sized version of an adult gala, including a holiday feast and festive entertainment ranging from magicians and face-painting to glitter tattoos and Chad the Christmas singer and his band, not to forget a visit from Santa, as portrayed for the first time by a slightly nervous charity boss determined to give hundreds of children the time of their lives.

Everything for the two kid-friendly holiday shindigs — food, the venue, the entertainment and more toys than you can shake a family-sized container of eggnog at — has been donated.

Liba and organizer Louis Trepel, Variety’s longtime ambassador and the driving force behind the holiday parties, agree the number of kids attending is proof of a growing need in the city.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jeff Liba (CEO of Variety) as Santa waves to children at Varietyճ annual Winter Wonderland party at the Delta Hotel in Winnipeg on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. This year, more than 900 economically disadvantaged kids from seven inner-city schools were treated to a fancy lunch, entertainment, gift bags and a visit from Santa. For Doug story. Winnipeg Free Press 2022.

“Having 900 kids just shows how tough the year has been on families,” Liba says. “The schools made sure to have as many kids as possible coming out… This whole event was set up to make sure that some of the kids in our community that aren’t able to look forward to the holiday season like more fortunate folks, that we let them know they are important and we give them a little bit of joy by creating a special event where they can come out, enjoy a hot meal and get spoiled like they are the VIPs.

“Manitoba continues to be the child poverty capital of Canada. One in four of the children in our community lives at or below the poverty line. Families struggle at all times to keep a roof over their heads, but at Christmastime even more so.”

Every child receives a couple of toys, candy, colouring books and bags packed with practical items, including tuques, mittens and toothbrushes.

The Delta is festooned with trees, festive decorations and thousands of lights. “We needed to transform the space in a really big big way to create this whole magical Candy Land. Kids love candy… thousands and thousands of lights for the magic of the stars,” Trepel says. “We do this every year because it’s such a wonderful way to share the joy, kindness and love with so many, and create hope.”

Jacques Lavergne, general manager of the Delta, says the hotel and its staff jumped at the chance to host this year’s parties. “It’s a pretty easy decision for us, an opportunity to give back to the community, especially at this time of year. Anytime you can involve children, it’s a place that’s near and dear to our hearts,” he says.

Lavergne says the parties resonate with the roughly 15 staff members who immigrated to Winnipeg from war-torn Ukraine. “We have a lot of new immigrants from Ukraine working here who have moved to Winnipeg with their families. When we asked our staff to step up and volunteer it was easy,” he says.

“The ones who have come over with their own children understand what it is to be in a place of need. This is exactly what this event is about — helping those who are in need and less fortunate.”

dougspeirs65@gmail.com

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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