'A very tough year': Hundreds line up for Salvation Army hampers

It's been a tough year for Merle Harnish. The company he worked for shut down and as he works, he's looking after his five-year-old daughter.

More than 5,200 families will be fed through the hamper program and more than 6,500 kids will get toys

Thousands line up on the first day of the Salvation Army hamper program giveaway at the Western Fair Agriplex in London. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

It's been a tough year for Merle Harnish. The company he worked for shut down and as he looks for work, he's looking after his five-year-old daughter. 

He wouldn't trade that time with his girl for anything, but he admits times are tough. 

"It's a lot of work. But I enjoy it," he said outside the Western Fair Agriplex on Thursday, after picking up one of the 5,200 Christmas hampers that will be given out this week and next. 

Without the bag of potatoes, the carrots and turnips, and the gift card for a turkey or ham, Christmas for Harnish's family would be tough, he said. 

"I'm grateful for these organizations that do this for people. It's good. It's very tough to get work in London. I'm looking for work," he said. "I'd say it's been a very tough year."

Harnish was among hundreds of people who lined up on the first day of the Christmas hamper program, put on by the Salvation Army. They snaked the side of the building. One man lined up late Wednesday night. 

By 6 a.m. Thursday, three hours before the Agriplex opened to people needing food and toys, there were almost 100 people in line. 

Salvation Army volunteer Don Denoon looks through bags of children's toys at the hamper program on Thursday. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

It's a sign of the need in the community, said Shannon Wise, a spokesperson for the Salvation Army. 

"A lot of people rely on this program. A lot of people rely on us and the partners we work with," Wise said. "It's difficult for a lot of families to ask for help, but that's what we have to do. That's what community is all about." 

The hampers come filled with what they need to make a traditional Christmas dinner, from carrots and potatoes to onions and turnips, as well as a grocery gift card for a turkey or ham. 

"It's reality that people fall on hard times and that's why this program is so essential," Wise said. 

Thousands lined up to receive the makings of a traditional Christmas dinner and toys for children, part of the Salvation Army's annual hamper program. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

For Ashley Abbott, a single mom of a seven-year-old daughter, the hamper means she is able to give her daughter a Christmas dinner and presents under the tree. 

"Without this, there wouldn't be Christmas. I wouldn't be able to afford it," Abbott said. "It's a lot of thankful people here."

Toy donations can still be dropped off at the back of the Agriplex. 

Volunteers sort the toys and food for the families and give them out every week day until Dec. 19 at the Western Fair Agriplex, located at 845 Florence Street, from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.