‘Castlegar never lets us down, not even once, when it comes to food or toys,’ says Deb McIntosh. (Photo: John Boivin)

Castlegar’s ‘beating heart’ on display with Christmas hamper program

Organizers say more working poor coming for help this season

Deb McIntosh begins to choke up a little as she surveys the pile of toys and mountains of food in the conference room at the Sandman Hotel.

“What we’re looking at here is the very heart, the beating heart, of Greater Castlegar,” says the head of the Community Harvest Foodbank.

“Castlegar never lets us down, not even once, when it comes to food or toys for those people who are looking for a little bit of help.”

It’s the busiest time of year for McIntosh and her team of volunteers. They’re preparing the Christmas food hampers for delivery to needy families in the region.

For the last few months, local fire departments — Castlegar, Ootischenia, Robson, and Tarry’s — have been collecting toys for kids of all ages before delivering them delivered them to the muster point for the hamper drive.

“I think it makes our crews feel really good, they’re contributing to the community, helping fill holes,” says Sam Lattanzio, the Castlegar fire chief. “I’ve been doing it myself for 21 of the 36 years we’ve been holding the toy drive, and I can personally tell you it feels great.”

While he couldn’t say if it’s the biggest collection of toys yet, Lattanzio says the firefighters have been overwhelmed by the generosity of local businesses, institutions and individuals this year. Even kids at the nearby Kinnaird Elementary School did their part, collecting more than $800 to spend on toys for the drive.

McIntosh says they’ve received applications from 225 families needing support this Christmas, and have enough supplies to cover the need.

She says that’s about the same number as the last few years — but the need is not going away.

“It’s not getting any better, unfortunately, because the cost of living is going up, the cost of utilities is going up, and the cost of housing is going up. We know people who are paying more than 50 per cent of their total income on rent,” she says. “And we’re seeing more working poor getting to us. It’s people who can’t make their paycheques stretch.”

McIntosh says they are seeing more people with regular jobs coming in looking for support.

“We had someone who has good job, and they qualify [for a hamper] because of child support payments he has to pay out. He’s under what qualifies,” she says. “So it’s a strange world out there.

“But our mandate is to help people where it’s needed, and it’s really what we want to do. We’re talking basic needs, not luxuries. We want to make sure people have something to eat.”

With all the food and toys gathered in one room, the work really begins.

The volunteers will spend the next few days sorting the toys by age and gender, and the food by type. Then they’ll take the various applications and fill hampers according to each family’s needs.

The supplies will be delivered to the families this Friday and Saturday.

Any leftover supplies will go into the food bank for distribution in January, because the need never really goes away.

“The Christmas season is when we get most of the donations, but we get help year-round from people who believe in what we do and how we do it,” says McIntosh. “And for that we are eternally grateful.

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Jason Wichmann (left) and Mike Cleare of the Ootishchenia Fire Department unload a truckload of toys to the hamper room. (Photo: John Boivin)

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