Manitoba

Christmas Cheer Board enters 100th year of helping Winnipeg's needy

For 100 years now, the Christmas Cheer Board has been making sure less-fortunate people in Winnipeg can celebrate the holidays with all of the fixings. Now, the charity itself is getting something back.

Started in 1919 by churches supporting widows and orphans of soldiers

The Cheer Board is always in need of volunteers and donations but somehow, every year, the charity manages to deliver hampers to thousands of Winnipeggers. (christmascheerboard.ca)

For 100 years now, the Christmas Cheer Board has been making sure less-fortunate people in Winnipeg can celebrate the holidays with all of the fixings.

Now, the charity itself is getting something back — recognition.

The office of the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba is holding a reception Tuesday night to mark the Cheer Board's milestone.

"I'm proud, obviously, because it's wonderful recognition for the organization and the volunteers," said executive director Kai Madsen, apologetically admitting he would rather stay out of any spotlight.

"I can handle someone giving me heck better than a pat on the back. But it is a wonderful recognition for reaching 100 years, which is remarkable."

Widows, orphans of WWI soldiers

The cheer board was started in 1919 by a number of Winnipeg churches with the intent of providing Christmas hampers and toys for the widows and orphans of the soldiers lost during the First World War.

The churches quickly realized there were many other families who also needed help and the project continued to grow. In the mid-1940s, the churches combined forces into a single organized charity.

Kai Madsen says he joined the Christmas Cheer Board because he was lonely, but now it's a large family. (CBC)

Now, people are invited to apply for a hamper, which consists of packaged food, gifts for any children aged 14 or younger, and a turkey. 

Thousands of volunteers then get together to pack and deliver the hamper in the days before Christmas.

When Madsen first started, there were about 5,000 hampers handed out. Last year, the total was just over 17,000, he said.

"I'm not sure if that's a result of anything increasing dramatically or whether it's just that we're getting better at making contact with the folks in the community," he said.

Madsen, who joined the organization as a volunteer 50 years ago, has earned the nickname of Winnipeg's Santa for his work with the charity.

"It became a calling," he said. "Once you get involved it's like a big family. You get to know everyone and you get to know your community and you become part of something that's really important."

Madsen was new to the city in the late 1960s, transferred as part of a sales job, when he became involved with the charity.

"It started because I was lonely.  I didn't know a single person," he said. "I needed to get involved in something and I just happened upon the Christmas Cheer Board and said, wow, what a really wonderful organization."

"And here we are, 50 years later."

A volunteer is seen packing a Christmas hamper in a previous year for the cheer board. (CBC)

He became executive director in 1994 and has overseen the joy and struggles that come with the job every year — the joy of being able to provide something for people who need it, and the struggles that come with being a volunteer-driven charity.

Each year, the cheer board must find donated warehouse space and some 5,000 volunteers to make the operation run.

The volunteers wrap toys, sort food and pack hampers, answer the switchboard, and map out delivery routes.

And every year, somehow, it all comes together. Madsen believes that's due to Winnipeg being such a close-knit community.

"There's one-degree of separation in Winnipeg. We're all so close and we feel so much part of the community," he said. 

Many past recipients of the cheer board, who were able to get themselves back on their feet and find success, return to the charity as donors and helpers "so that other people can be looked after as well," said Madsen.

"This happens time and time again," he said.

And while he enjoys the gratification that comes with helping hundreds of thousands of people over the years, Madsen isn't sure how much longer he will shepherd the operation.

"It's not going to be too far down the road. I'm getting a little more grey around the edges," he said.

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