The small gymnasium at Rossbrook House was booming with yuletide melodies one week before Christmas, but the six children in the room weren’t dancing together like they might have in years past.
Even siblings had to sit several feet apart, and when they finished decorating their reindeer cupcakes, they had to pull down a sheet of fabric masking their smiles before taking a bite.
The kids were young, between six and 11, and for them, Rossbrook is a place to momentarily forget about the world, play games, eat fun food, and smile — a cornerstone of a memorable Christmas. This one should be no different, Sheila Chippastance says.
"OK everyone, we’re about to play a game," announced Chippastance, a staff member who wears many hats at the inner-city centre, in a voice muffled slightly by a face mask. "It’s gonna be a lot of fun."
One by one, Chippastance handed out gifts and goodies, but there was a catch, she explained: there wasn’t just one layer of wrapping paper. Nope, the gifts were wrapped in paper wrapped in paper wrapped in plastic wrap, all taped together like an impenetrable barrier between their little hands and whatever toys lay beneath.
"OK now, when the music stops playing," Chippastance said, trailing off. "Nevermind, this all made sense in my head before. It’s a race: the fastest unwrapper wins."
Chippastance and the staff at Rossbrook have had to think on their feet like that this year, ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced regular programming to shift at the Winnipeg drop-in centre, which converted to a 24-7 safe space to provide more support during a most unpredictable year.
Since its founding in the 1970s, Christmas has been a highlight of the year at Rossbrook: there were big holiday feasts, sleigh rides, and visits from Santa on the main stage in the auditorium. It was all part of the simple mission driving what Sister Geraldine MacNamara helped create: no child who does not want to be alone, should ever have to be.
This year, true to that founding mission, the space is decorated as usual, but Chippastance and company understand decorations mean nothing without the framework to support them.
"We’re back to the basics at Rossbrook," said Phil Chiappetta, the organization’s executive director. "But under the masks, we’re all smiling."
With a whole lot going on in the world, that’s been the goal with these kids: to keep them smiling.
Like a lot of people associated with Rossbrook House, Chippastance’s connection began far before 2020.
She first came to the centre shortly after it opened, as an 11-year-old neighbourhood kid looking for a place to call her own. She followed her older brothers, and her mom volunteered, cooking bannock for all of the events.
"Oh my goodness," she said. "It was a long time ago."
Back then, it was hopping: there were meals, candy canes and oranges, Christmas plays and visits with friends that lasted hours, games of pool that seemed to mean the world to those playing and watching.
"For me it was like home," she said. "Everything was a celebration."
She became a junior staff member, with every intention of staying on as a senior staffer. But at 19, she was offered a job as an educational assistant with one of the schools associated with Rossbrook, and she embarked on a 30-year career before retiring a few years ago.
Retirement didn’t last long: she expected to work in her garden, sit back and read, "Do stuff I never had time to do." Then her old boss, Sister Margeret, called her and said, "Let’s volunteer at Rossbrook."
"She dragged me back," Chippastance said. She’s still there, now working as a volunteer co-ordinator and mentor to the junior staff, in addition to running the program for six- to 11-year-olds.
“For me it was like home. Everything was a celebration.” – Sheila Chippastance
She usually starts work around 10 a.m., trying to go home around 6 p.m., but she frequently gets sidetracked by a challenge at the Foosball table. "I’ll always play, and there’s no holding back," she said with a smile. "I play to win, even against the little guys."
People would ask her, "How are your kids?" and she’d ask, "Which ones? The ones at Rossbrook or my own?"
So when the pandemic came, she had quite a few kids to think about.
It’s people like Chippastance who keep Rossbrook going, said Phil Chiappetta, who started at the centre in 1980. He remembers her from back then, a young kid with a big heart and strong ties to the community.
In the four decades since, Chiappetta has seen the neighbourhood change: organizations like IRCOM have been established nearby, buildings have been torn down, a Tim Hortons and a Subway have been put up.
The physical neighbourhood has changed, but the systemic issues Rossbrook House was founded to fight against — poverty, hunger, gang violence, lack of access to employment and resources — still persist.
"Things are moving in the right direction, but there are tons of systemic issues that won’t likely be ending any time soon," he said.
During the pandemic those issues have had another layer added: food insecurity is on the rise, after-school programs and sports — huge outlets for youth — are on hold, and with employment even more tenuous than usual, the individual needs of low-income households are even more pressing than before.
“Things are moving in the right direction, but there are tons of systemic issues that won’t likely be ending any time soon.” – Phil Chiappetta
Plus, there are the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on the inner city, from both a health and welfare perspective.
So the work of organizations like Rossbrook, and people like Chippastance, of whom there are thankfully countless working behind the scenes, is as invaluable as ever.
Chiappetta said the community stepped up to keep the centre going during these tough times: funding from organizations such as End Homelessness Winnipeg, United Way and the Winnipeg Foundation, plus support from dozens of local social justice groups and individuals, has allowed Rossbrook to keep doing its work.
"We’ll be OK because Winnipeggers are great at rallying behind a cause," he said.
But the rallying only gets so far: you need someone who can keep six-year-olds engaged to make sure it’s not wasted.
Chippastance is a seasoned veteran at doing that. She walked around the room during the Christmas party, keeping her distance, checking in on all the children in the gymnasium to try to make sure they were having fun for at least a few hours a week. With the gift-unwrapping game, she knew she had at least 15 minutes accounted for.
Siblings Travis, Jude and Gertrude ripped through their packaging: there were table hockey games and craft kits hidden deep beneath the wrapping. Travis and Jude held their boxes in the air with pride, and Gertrude’s eyes widened when she saw the craft kit.
Savannah tore through her packaging, too, finding a hair-glitter kit and wondering if she needed to be blonde to use it. "Glitter’s for everyone," a junior staffer said.
One by one, the kids unwrapped their presents, with one boy, Brandon, lagging behind. "Come on Brandon," Chippastance said.
He was working up a sweat, and 10 minutes after he started, he too unwrapped a table hockey game. "I think I pulled my shoulder," he said, wincing.
Next, there were more gifts — something Chippastance said many families would have trouble getting their hands on this year, because of restrictions on in-store shopping and other barriers. These ones were generously donated, she said, including all the makings for a homemade slime project. Brandon looked confused by the bag of flour until he noticed the sheet of paper with a recipe for slime written on it.
Sheila looked pleased. The kids were eating, they were laughing. And even six feet apart, they were playing: a wind-up car raced across the room, slamming into the wall, and Jude cried with laughter.
Asked if this year felt any different than previous Christmases at Rossbrook, or at home, nine-year-old Savannah shook her head no. "We’re still having fun," she said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.