When asked about the Christmas Cheer Board’s effect on Winnipeg, executive director Kai Madsen points to a letter he received earlier this season.
The handwritten note, signed by a "former very grateful recipient," accompanied a donation of more than 50 non-perishable food items.
"In the past, I received many Christmas hampers for my children and myself from your wonderful organization," the note says.
"This year, I was extremely lucky to receive some extra, unexpected money. So, I decided to repay some of the help I received in the past from you by donating to your wonderful cause."
"I hope this gift will make Christmas a little brighter for some families," the note continues. "I’m very grateful to all who donate and volunteer now and in the past. Have a very Merry Christmas."
Receiving that note felt terrific, says Madsen, who often hears from hamper recipients.
"Many of them recount that without the Cheer Board, they likely would not have been able to celebrate Christmas," he says. "Those are common stories we get all the time."
Sarah, another recipient, recently shared her story in a testimonial that Madsen had asked her to write.
She grew up with a single mother in government housing downtown. When her mother decided to go back to school to earn her high school equivalency, money was tight.
Sarah recalls the anxiety she felt opening the fridge, wondering if there would be enough food.
"We almost never had meat or milk," she writes.
"Sometimes I would pour cold tap water into a bowl and put a little bit of cereal in it to make a meal."
She goes on to describe how exciting and magical it felt as a small child to receive that first hamper from the Cheer Board.
"There were kind faces at the door with elf hats on, a big cardboard box full of food and even two small gifts wrapped for me."
It’s those gifts that Sarah remembers most clearly from the hamper.
They included a pair of knitted, rainbow-coloured mitts.
"I was always the poorest kid in my class at school, and we had no family around, so it often felt extremely lonely," she writes. "I found it astonishing that someone who didn’t even know me cared enough about me to take the time to make me mittens. Suddenly, I was less alone, and I wore those mitts until there were holes in the thumbs."
Sarah concludes her story by saying that her mother got her high school diploma and went on to university, where she earned an honours degree in science.
"Now I’m a teacher, and my own kids will never know what it feels like to look at an empty fridge, thanks mainly to the hard work my mom put in," Sarah writes. "Growing up in poverty was very stressful, but knowing that other people cared about us, and having something special to look forward to every Christmas, helped motivate me and build resilience.
"I will forever be grateful for the role the Cheer Board played in our lives."