WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Bill Petten has a quiet moment before the Christmas hamper packing evening begins

December 26, 2011
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

For 25 years, Bill Petten has been involved with Edmonton's Christmas Hamper Drive.

On Dec. 16, Petten, 74, along with dozens of other volunteers of all ages and genders, came down to the gym of St. Francis of Assisi School to fill nearly 2,000 food hampers that were distributed to the needy across Edmonton the following day.

"I enjoy doing this; it is the one thing I look forward to every year," the retired security consultant said. "I like to give of my time for this special time of the year."

Petten's job is to get the hampers packed with the help of volunteers. He has volunteers stationed beside a pile of each of the items that go into the hamper. Boxes come down a conveyor belt and volunteers standing on each side of the belt put their assigned items into the box.

Hampers that are complete are piled up on the floor for distribution the following day. Petten gives his instructions loudly and walks up and down the gym making sure things are done right. His goal is to have all the hampers done by 10:30 p.m.

Early the following morning, volunteers will add a turkey to the hampers that so require. It could be an A, C or D turkey "depending on the size of the family." In addition to a large "D" turkey, a large family receives two boxes of food each.

A member of the Knights of Columbus Council 1184, Petten believes it's his duty as a Christian to help people in need; that's why he returns year after year.

"The hampers will help people in need to have a proper Christmas dinner, which we enjoy but a lot of people don't," he said. "They don't have the turkey or the food that comes in the hamper. Sometimes they live day to day with very little."

The Christmas Hamper Service is a joint project of Catholic Social Services and the Edmonton Christmas Bureau.

Marc Barylo, a member of the Christmas Bureau Board and the overall program coordinator, said CSS began the hamper service in 1962 at Grandin School and delivered 340 hampers that first year. CSS joined the Christmas Bureau in 1968 and since then the two organizations have worked together.

"We are the primary hamper service providers of the Christmas Bureau," Barylo said. The program, based at St. Francis School since 2003, has delivered an average of 1,800 hampers a year probably since 1998.

In the old days all the food for the hampers was donated.

"Since the advent of the Food Bank in 1985, we have to buy all the food," Barylo said. It costs about $135,000 a year to provide the hamper service in Edmonton, with the bulk of the cost being picked up by the Christmas Bureau.

One big headache every year is buying the food, especially the turkeys, whose sale is controlled by a marketing board.

"They estimate early in the year, March, how many turkeys they need to produce," noted Barylo. "Once they make that guestimate based on the big stores, they don't produce any more."

For a number of years, Barylo has had to go to Manitoba and Saskatchewan to get turkeys hauled in because he couldn't get any turkeys in Alberta.

This year again he couldn't get any turkeys so he had to beg one of his contacts at Lilydale to persuade the big stores to cut back their orders a bit.

38 YEARS

Demeris Real started helping out in 1973 when his Knights of Columbus council asked him to get involved. He liked the project's objective so much he continued showing up for the next 37 years.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Paige and Dawn Mullen packed juice containers into Christmas hampers.

What does Real get out it? "I get Air Miles to go to heaven," he laughed. His wife Blandine also volunteers.

Real started out putting turkeys into the boxes but now he coordinates the volunteers.

Among other things, he phones the volunteers and gets them to separate the food and make the boxes before the big day. This year he worked for four days to get everything ready. In the old days, it used to be a three-week operation.

"It's getting to the point where people phone me and ask if I need help."

On Dec. 16, Real welcomed 110 volunteers to St. Francis School. He offered them pizza and drinks before they moved into the gym to start packing.

Lynn Shumlick of St. Albert has been helping for 12 years.

"It's a great feeling to be able to help those that don't have as much," she said. Shumlick helps feed the volunteers that come to fill the hampers. "This is a big job. It takes the whole week to get things organized."

GIRL GUIDES

Elizabeth James, 27, was one of about 25 members of the Girl Guides of Canada helping fill hampers. Her job was to put cans of cream corn into the boxes as they passed in front of her in the conveyor belt.

"It's good to give back to the community, especially at this time of the year when there are a lot of people that don't have anything," she said.

"It's lots of fun and it's for a good cause," said a smiling Jacquie Staric, also 27. She was in charge of putting macaroni and cheese into the boxes.

Almost 300 drivers, many from the Knights of Columbus, delivered hampers plus more than 700 gift certificates to needy families across the city.