ST. PAUL - After about 35 years at the helm of the annual Christmas hampers program, the St. Paul Knights of Columbus have officially handed the reigns over to a number of community partners.
On Thursday afternoon, a photo was taken with a group of Knights of Columbus members, and those who will now be leading the way, ensuring families in need can enjoy a holiday meal and children have gifts to open Christmas morning.
With the Knights of Columbus unable to take on the campaign last year due to the pandemic, the Town of St. Paul's FCSS department helped ensure the hampers were still made possible, reaching out to local grocery stores, while also finding new ways to organize the hampers. With public health measures in place restricting the number of people who could gather, Town of St. Paul staff stepped up to the plate, and grocery stores did much of the organizing in-house.
These partnerships will continue to be forged, as the efforts now officially shift to become the Community Christmas Hamper program.
Partners of the Christmas hampers program include Sobeys, Extra Foods, and Cornerstone Co-op, along with Town of St. Paul staff. Of course, Santa's Elves, organized through the St. Paul Regional High School will also continue to be involved, as they gather the gifts that accompany the food hampers.
Long-time organizer and Knights of Columbus member Herman Poulin says the hamper program has always been a community affair. Over the years, groups such as 4-H and the Junior Canadiens hockey club have been involved in helping assemble and distribute the hampers.
He adds that there is a sense of pride in seeing the program taken over by the community, and compares it to a child spreading their wings and going out into the world. He says it's gratifying knowing there were groups willing to take on the worthwhile project.
And while the Knights of Columbus are stepping away from general duties, they are still going to be involved with raising funds and supporting the initiative.
Fellow Knights of Columbus member Simon Dargis agrees, saying the organization will continue to support the efforts financially, and if help is needed, the Knights will answer the call. Any excess amounts raised will be directed to the St. Paul & District Food Bank and the Capella Centre.
In the past, when the Knights of Columbus required help with the hampers, they would put out a call to the community, and the community would always respond.
"If we need help, we should ask for help," says Dargis.
The Knights of Columbus have struggle with finding new members, and it has become harder to take on big projects, says Eric Germain, Grand Knight with the local group. But, "we are doing what we can with what we have."
When asked about the beginnings of the Christmas hampers project over three decades ago, Fern Ouellette says that while he wasn't involved right at the beginning, he believes it started very small, with the group providing about five hampers to families in need the first year. At the time, the Knights of Columbus members would also sit and visit with the families who received the hampers.
Then, the project grew a little bigger... and in 2019, 234 hampers were put together and delivered to families in need. Much of the fundraising was done through the Catholic church, with people putting $5 and sometimes up to $1,000 into envelopes collected at the local parish. Every bit helped, says Ouellette.
Poulin is confident the project is in good hands, and believes the community has "vibrant youth" who will ultimately help carry it forward. Poulin is quick to thank those taking over the project, and says he only feels gratitude with the shift.
Changes will be made to how the hampers are put together, and a focus will be made on collecting monetary donations rather than actual food donations. This will allow grocery stores to create the hampers themselves - and ensures that each family gets a similar hamper.
Rather than buying turkeys and hams and other perishable items, coupons will be attached to the hampers, so families can go directly to the stores to pick up those items.
Funds will be collected at the grocery stores, and can also be directed to the Town of St. Paul FCSS office. The TD Bank has already stepped forward with a significant donation of $2,000 to get the season started.
Having all three major grocery stores involved helps spread the workload, explains Town of St. Paul FCSS director Lynn Smid.
Donations to the Santa's Elves can be done through St. Paul Regional High School.
Referrals for recipients of this year's Christmas hampers will be accepted starting Nov. 15, and can be done by calling the FCSS office at 780-645-5311.