If Santa Claus needed a manager for his toy workshop at the North Pole, he couldn’t do much better than hiring Winnipeg’s Ron Paul.
A warehouse manager for 25 years, Paul now tinkers with the assembly line at the Christmas Cheer Board, looking for efficiencies in packing the thousands of hampers that go out every year.
His role as assembly-line elf began more as a whim than by design, when he wandered into the seasonal warehouse eight years ago after retiring from paid work.
"Everyone who is a volunteer here absolutely loves it and it fills their day," he says of why he comes back year after year.
That love of the job is a common refrain among 300 or so volunteers who spend the seven weeks before Christmas in the former office supply warehouse on St. James Street, says Debra Halligan, 66, now in her first year as volunteer co-ordinator.
"I’m blown away by the commitment," says the retired retail manager.
"When I look at the list of volunteers, it gives me goosebumps."
That list includes about 300 warehouse workers, 1,000 school children, 300 knitters who produce scarves, hats and mittens throughout the year, and 2,000 drivers who deliver the 17,000 hampers to families in need.
Those thousands of volunteers set the century-old organization apart from other seasonal hamper charities across Canada, explains executive director Kai Madsen, who at age 78 has been involved with the organization for 50 years.
"It’s a complete package. That’s really unique," he says of the organization that packs and delivers the thousands of hampers on an annual budget of $850,000.
Volunteers run the entire operation, from the front desk reception, to the call centre operators who take hamper requests, to toy wrappers, hamper packers and of course the delivery drivers.
Local churches began handing out hampers in 1919 to assist families who had lost husbands and fathers during the First World War. About three decades later, the churches joined forces to become the city’s main Christmas hamper agency.
Working the front lines opened her eyes to the desperate circumstances of poverty some of her fellow Winnipeggers find themselves in, explains administrative manager Sheila Worboys, who connects with 50 social services agencies to facilitate clients receiving hampers.
"It’s very hard for people to ask for help, but they really need it because they want their kids to have a nice Christmas," says Worboys, 65, now retired from the insurance industry.
She’s been volunteering for the last decade, first at the switchboard and now spending her days applying her technical skills to update the board’s social media pages, creating spreadsheets and finding efficiencies.
"I don’t like doing anything manually," says Worboys, whose retired letter-carrier husband Bob also volunteers at the board.
"I look to make it better."
Madsen gives all his volunteers the same latitude in figuring out the best way to do their jobs, a management style that encourages volunteers to return year after year.
"That’s the way I run the organization. I let people take ownership and I back them up," he says.
"We’ve empowered volunteers more in the last years in working in their areas and coming up with solutions to problems," adds assistant executive director Linda Grayston.
"These folks come from all kinds of jobs and bring a whole set of skills. We depend on them a lot," says Madsen.
The volunteers depend on each other too, whether for a cheery hello each morning or for a quick catchup over lunch. After 25 years of volunteering, Bernie Kuntz had to pull back for family reasons, but he pops by most days to deliver a load of day-old goodies donated by a local bakery.
"They’re very nice people and I have good friends here and you can talk to them and keep up your friendship," he explains.
"You can’t wait until November so you can see them again."
That sort of camaraderie keeps Cec Simard coming back to the box-making line, putting together more than a thousand boxes a day, five days a week, and showing up on weekends if they need her.
"I love the people and it’s a great cause," says the 66-year-old retired government employee.
"I worked in an office for 37 years, so this is fun."
It may be fun, but it is also hard work, especially lifting heavy family-sized hampers onto pallets. Most of the regular volunteers are in their retirement years, dedicating about two months between summer activities and winter vacations to helping the cheer board.
"There’s lots of grey hair around here," explains Madsen.
"People with grey hair have a lot of activities, like golf, gardening and the cottage. They’ve developed friendships among themselves and they meet up in the south."
Then they come back the next year, adds Grayston, who forwards the office phone to her home to take calls during the nine-month off-season.
"It’s a little bit contagious," she says about the enthusiasm of long-term volunteers.
"For me, it’s a joy to come and it’s exhausting and I love it."
Not only are volunteers committed to returning each hamper season, they recruit their family and friends to join the cause, building a diverse but tight community as they as they spend hours together sorting toys, constructing boxes, and assembling hampers. After several years of coming alone to the warehouse, Paul is now accompanied by his wife Donna to help build boxes from the stacks of flattened die-cut cardboard.
"We kind of say without the box makers, there ain’t no boxes to put food," jokes the 76-year-old.
"I volunteer at other places, but at this place they have so much fun and there’s so much joy," adds Donna Paul, 69.
With the peak time just completed, the warehouse starts to empty as hampers are packed and delivered and volunteers can breathe a bit easier and even take a bit of time for their own Christmas preparations.
They celebrate the end of the hamper season with a meal together, setting up tables and chairs in the warehouse for some relaxation and fun.
Other than that final meal, and a few pizza lunches dotting the busy season, volunteers don’t receive any other reward except for the satisfaction providing cheer to 17,000 families this December.
Halligan believes these volunteers receive as much or more back as they contribute to the efforts of the Christmas Cheer Board.
"I believe volunteering is good for the soul," says the former volunteer provincial commissioner for Girl Guides of Canada.
"There’s a need. It makes me feel good and I look out and think there are so many things that wouldn’t get done if it weren’t for volunteers."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.