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A century-old Winnipeg tradition is the latest in a long line of COVID-19 cancellations.

For the first time in its history, the Christmas Cheer Board won't be giving out hampers of food and toys this year. The hampers are being replaced with vouchers for qualifying families so they can buy between $30 to $100 worth of food this holiday season — a smaller, and more expensive, venture for a charity upon which thousands rely during the holiday season.

"It took a lot of soul-searching and disappointment on our part because we're accustomed to doing the hampers, but we had to be realistic," said Kai Madsen, the Cheer Board's executive director.

Kai Madsen, executive director of the Christmas Cheer Board, says the organization had to be realistic this year. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kai Madsen, executive director of the Christmas Cheer Board, says the organization had to be realistic this year. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

A thousand students packed the Christmas hampers last year — students who can no longer take field trips to the Cheer Board's warehouse because of physical distancing restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And given that most people involved with the Cheer Board are more vulnerable to the virus — some of those who normally receive hampers lack stable housing, and many of its core volunteers are between 65 to 75 years old — the team felt they had to put a stop to the hampers, Madsen said.

How to donate

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More information on how to apply to receive a voucher will be available closer to the opening of the application phone lines on Nov. 12, the Christmas Cheer Board says.

Donations are being accepted now online here.

The sponsored hamper program (Feed-A-Family) will run as usual. It involves an individual or organization sponsoring a family and packing and delivering a hamper for them.

"There really wasn't a whole bunch of options available to us. We wanted to be able to help, and so this was the only option."

Voucher amounts will be determined by family size, and they'll be mailed to families who qualify, said Madsen, who was working through the summer and holding a lot of team meetings to find a pandemic-appropriate solution. Anticipating an influx of calls to its hamper application hotline, the Cheer Board added five more phone lines to its warehouse. Starting Nov. 12 until Dec. 13, volunteers will staff 15 phones in a spaced out, sanitized office to sign families up for the vouchers.

Those were the days: volunteers from Charleswood United Church gather close together to pack hampers last Christmas. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

RUTH BONNEVILLE

Those were the days: volunteers from Charleswood United Church gather close together to pack hampers last Christmas. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The change comes as food hampers have replaced communal meals at some local community centres and resource organizations during the pandemic, showing steady demand. Madsen expects the Cheer Board to give out roughly 16,500 vouchers — the same number of Christmas hampers that were distributed last year.

Vouchers will be more expensive for the non-profit to offer, Madsen expects, since the Cheer Board typically receives half the food needed for the hampers through donations. They have a budget of about $1 million to deliver thousands of vouchers.

"We have a budget for groceries, and that's really to fill in where we don't get enough product donated. That donated aspect won't be in place this year, so... we have to buy everything that they used to get via purchase and donation."

The Cheer Board will be leaning more heavily on financial donations: "Financial support is really the key," Madsen said.

Packed hampers at the Christmas Cheer Board last December. This year, vouchers will be sent out instead. (Mikaela MacKenzie / WInnipeg Free Press files)

Packed hampers at the Christmas Cheer Board last December. This year, vouchers will be sent out instead. (Mikaela MacKenzie / WInnipeg Free Press files)

"What we need the most now is, make sure that they don't forget to send us a donation if they can. Because the commitment to the food vouchers has been made, that means that we have to pay for them, so we will need to make sure that Manitobans — as they always do — step up and make sure that, so if you sent a cheque last year, don't forget to send one this year."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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