After being laid off last year by COVID-19 restrictions, Santa was back on the job Monday at Assiniboine Park Zoo, making a special holiday memory for some of the city’s neediest kids.
The Jolly Old Elf, as portrayed by retired Free Press humour columnist Doug Speirs, helped unleash the holiday spirit at the first of two Winter Wonderland parties organized by Variety, the Children’s Charity of Manitoba for hundreds of economically disadvantaged schoolchildren.
The parties organized in conjunction with the Assiniboine Park Conservancy Monday and today were a welcome bright spot for 650 kids from four Winnipeg schools — Lavallee, Frontenac, St. George and Hampstead — as a surging fourth wave has made Manitoba Canada’s COVID-19 hot spot.
"This is the first field trip in almost two years for these kids," said Jeff Liba, CEO of Variety, which provides specialized equipment, programs and services for children with special needs in Manitoba. "Last year, COVID forced us to do the hamper program. We are so excited this year that we can actually host kids again. It’s very gratifying to see them laughing and smiling."
In 2018, the charity hosted a one-day party for kids from five inner-city schools. In 2019, Variety doubled the fun, holding two parties over two days for 10 schools. The ambitious plan in 2020 was to hold three parties — each with a visit from Kris Kringle — over three days for 15 schools.
But when stricter code-red pandemic protocols were announced, Variety pivoted to an online Winter Wonderland Holiday Hampers program, asking donors to purchase hampers with pantry staples and everything for a festive feast, and children’s gift packages, which included toys, treats and winter essentials such as tuques.
While Santa got an unwelcome break in the first year of the pandemic, Variety’s elves worked double time, delivering two truckloads of holiday hampers and toys to families caring for about 600 economically disadvantaged schoolchildren in the city.
The hamper program was a huge success, but Liba and fellow organizer Louis Trepel, a founding member of Variety and the charity’s longtime ambassador, agreed nothing can match the unfettered joy of seeing the children’s smiles at an in-person celebration.
"We are super-excited," Liba said, beaming. "We are doing this because, like it or not, not every child grows up in an environment where they can enjoy the holiday season. The stats don’t change year over year — one in three kids in this province is growing up in economic disadvantage."
Liba and Trepel said the low-income families Variety supports are the ones hit hardest by the pandemic; it’s hard to enjoy the holidays when you have to worry about keeping a roof over your head.
"I missed this (Winter Wonderland) big-time last year," a misty-eyed Trepel confided. "To me, this is a very big part of the holiday season. Being connected with these kids brings joy and a smile to my heart."
The zoo stepped up this year to offer a location with outdoor and indoor venues that can easily accommodate social distancing. All the volunteers for both parties were double-vaccinated and everyone, including Santa, was required to wear a mask when indoors and not eating.
"While we’re providing a wonderful outing, everyone is adhering to safety protocols to ensure the kids are having a fun and safe time," Liba noted. "Even Santa wore a mask."
On both days, the kids were treated to a holiday lunch (the venue was sanitized after each sitting), guided tours of the zoo’s attractions, festive entertainment, and a visit from Kris Kringle, as portrayed by a now-retired Free Press columnist with extra time on his hands. The food was donated by Salisbury House of Canada and Pratts Wholesale & Food Service.
"That’s a lot of food and a lot of kids. It’s incredibly generous," Trepel said.
Noted Liba: "There will be leftovers for the kids to take home. We know that every year the kids are looking to bring home leftovers to share with their brothers and sisters. As hungry as the kids are, they always save a little bit to share with their siblings."
"At the end of the day, the kids had a blast and that’s all that really matters." ‐ Jeff Liba, CEO of Variety
The organizers agreed they are overwhelmed at how quickly businesses and volunteers came together to make the two Winter Wonderland events a success, despite ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic.
"The folks at the zoo have been so accommodating. They’re part of our volunteer contingent, which shows how wonderful it is to live in a community that comes together to help these very deserving kids," Liba said.
Trepel noted the toys doled out to the kids were provided by Montreal-based Red Planet Group; Bison Transport trucked all the gifts to Winnipeg. Before leaving, the kids also got loot bags stuffed with goodies and practical items.
"At the end of the day, the kids had a blast and that’s all that really matters," Liba said.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.