Sharing the joy of Christmas
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This article was published 09/05/2022 (396 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This month’s Local Heroes feature begins with a letter from Shirley Pantel, who, in response to our calls for readers to nominate local heroes, wrote to us about her friend Lorna Normand.
“I would like to nominate Lorna Normand who deserves to be saluted as a local hero for all she does for the children of Ronald McDonald House. For years, Lorna and her late husband Jim would dress as Santa and Mrs. Claus and attend the annual Christmas party, bringing joy to all the children,” Shirley wrote.
“After her husband passed, a friend joined her so the beloved tradition could continue. Throughout the entire year, Lorna dedicates her time to sewing and making toys and gifts for this event. She is provided with a list of the children and their ages, and not only does she provide gifts for them but their brothers and sisters as well. Even while facing many serious health issues herself, Lorna continues thinking of the children,” Shirley added.
“I have known Lorna for over 60 years and have always known that if she could make the children happy, then she was happy, too.”
With such a glowing nomination letter, it was obvious that Lorna Normand had to be recognized as a Local Hero.
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“Jim and I were doing the Santa bit long before we were ever involved with Ronald McDonald House,” Lorna said, when asked about the origin of their Christmas tradition.
“It started in the ’70s, when we used to babysit two little girls over the weekend on a regular basis. Our kids (two girls and a boy) were grown and we liked kids, so we helped some friends by looking after their children. One year Jim said ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we dressed up and went over there as Santa and Mrs. Claus?’
“So I made outfits for us and we visited the girls at their house and they just loved it. And it kind of just took off from there.”
Lorna, who’s now 82 and still lives in the family home in Elmwood, said one thing led to another and that she and Jim were soon visiting homes all over Winnipeg as Mr. and Mrs. Claus on Christmas Eve.
“We had our regular routine. We’d start in Transcona, then go to East Kildonan, The Maples, the North End, the West End, St. James and Fort Rouge,” she said. “It was all word-of-mouth and it was all done for goodwill, never for money. We got so much joy out of seeing the kids’ faces and I have to say it that we were doing it for ourselves as much as for the kids.”
The Normands clearly put a lot of effort into their annual Christmas Eve tour. Lorna said she has always loved to sew and do crafts, so she would knit little toys and trinkets every year and they regularly brought along helper ‘elves’, including their granddaughters, to help carry and organize everything they needed for their visits.
Parents of children they were to visit would even send Lorna and Jim their children’s Dear Santa letters along with photographs, so the Normands could compile them into a ‘naughty and nice’ book.
“The kids loved looking through that book and finding themselves,” she said.
The Normands first became involved with Ronald McDonald House Charities Manitoba in 1985, the year after Ronald McDonald House first opened on Bannatyne Avenue as a home-away-from-home for up to 14 families with children whose illnesses require stays at the Health Sciences Centre. (A new Ronald McDonald House will soon open on Juno Street, expanding RMHC’s capacity from 11,000 to 48,000 square feet, and from 14 to 40 bedrooms.)
“We had a few gifts left over that year,” Lorna recalled. “So I called up and spoke to the house manager, explained who we were and what we did and they said ‘Sure, come on over.’ The next year we went back and had breakfast with the kids, and that’s how it started.”
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Wendy Galagan has been CEO of RMHC Manitoba for the past seven years and was house manager for a year before that. She said she learned about Lorna Normand soon after she began working at Ronald McDonald House.
“I was told that it was a longstanding Christmas tradition and that Lorna and her family had been very giving of their time and of her talent,” Galagan said.
“We try to bring normalcy and essential services to families with sick children. When families are together, kids heal faster — that’s a fact. So if we can bring a sense of normalcy to holidays and make families and children feel a little special, and for them to have the compassion and that sense of caring to help families feel special during the holidays — it’s a wonderful thing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic kept Santa and Mrs. Claus away from Ronald McDonald House in 2020 and 2021 but, with RMHC’s new, larger location about to open, Galagan said it’s possible that Lorna and Perry will be able to spread their joy in 2022.
“It’s too early to say for certain but if physical distancing will be required, we’ll have the space,” she said.
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When Jim Normand became ill around the year 2000, Lorna and he curtailed their Christmas Eve excursions.
“We would sit at home and looked through the book and talked about some of the adventures we had together,” Lorna said. “It was hard.”
After her husband died, Lorna said she eventually felt the pull to get back out and make children happy. and She found a new Santa Claus in family friend Perry Falk, the brother of Lorna’s daughter-in-law and the new Mr. and Mrs. Claus, along with new elf Ashley Hoffman, were soon back on their sleigh.
“Jim and I loved every minute of it together, and I still do to this day,” Lorna says. “I still love making things for the kids.
“It’s the joy of it, you know? You can’t put a price on joy. You can’t pay for something like that.”
Managing editor, Canstar Community News
John Kendle is managing editor of Canstar Community News, which publishes the Free Press Community Review. Email him at: email@example.com