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'Santa Claus has nothing,' Barrie and District Christmas Cheer

While Santa will only have to be checking his list twice this time of year, the folks at The Barrie and District Christmas Cheer are doing the hard work.
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While Santa will only have to be checking his list twice this time of year, the folks at Barrie and District Christmas Cheer are doing the hard work.

For 43 years the local organization has provided toys and food to close to 2,000 families in the Barrie and surrounding area who need a little help this season. Valerie Blaker is the Chair of the Toy Department and says that while she has been helping for 17 years, its still a very emotional time.

“A woman that I know asked if I would come down to the armoury and help pack toys; I did and that was it; I was here and dedicated ever since,” said Blaker. “We provide toys and food to families that are in need during the Christmas season. Some are simply working but not making enough money and others have fallen on harder times and just can’t afford the gifts for their children; that always makes me cry.”

The main warehouse is at 364 St. Vincent Street unit 17 (the same building as Flags Unlimited but around the back) but there are close to 220 drop-off locations throughout Barrie, Innisfil and Angus; all of which are noted on the website. Blaker admits it’s a lot of hard work but that she is blessed to be part of a huge team of people who love giving back.

“We do meet year-round to discuss any issues from the past season and plan for the next but the volunteers do the packing the week before Christmas,” said Blaker. “We moved from next door just this year to this bigger space so we’re making many adjustments in that manner but Cheer is full of so many dedicated people and it is a real team; my husband is on the board as well and there are so many people who give their time selflessly when its crunch time.”

The toys are dropped off and sorted according to age and gender; which, as the days get closer to the big packing day, can get quite hectic. The warehouse is already starting to fill up and separating is already taking place.

The now-retired Blaker says it’s like a beehive or an ant colony in the warehouse as volunteers busily work together in unison to get the job completed and she is grateful for a team that sees the schedule and just gets to work.

“All the items eventually come here with food over to that side and toys on this side,” said Blaker. “I deal with the toys and that has many steps to it with so many different types to sort. If it is battery operated it goes to the battery area and new and used is also separated. If it is used slightly we ship that to the Salvation Army where they can re-gift it, if it is really beat up we can’t use it, we need new items. If the item is acceptable it makes it to the next table and is sorted by age and whether its going to a boy or girl; they are then put into the bags we have here which is then taken down to the end of the building where quality control double checks it to make sure the bag contains items for that child. We don’t want the boy’s and girl’s toys to get mixed up or items for a younger child going to an older one; we want smiles Christmas morning. Then it goes to the last table where it is marked accordingly and stored until it’s time to be shipped out; the process takes about four days.”

Christmas Cheer is volunteer-based and Blaker mentioned how grateful the whole organization is to not just the packers on the front line during that very hectic week, but also the little odds and ends done by those who see a way to help and do it.

“When I joined up 17 years ago so did my husband because they were looking for some one who drive a truck and he can,” said Blaker. “Those shelves on the wall over there are new because someone wanted to give us more area to put bags before sorting and decided to donate their time and skill to build them. And obviously we can’t do this without our sponsors and especially the folks at Moore Packaging and PBM Realty who gave us this space; we’re very blessed in this city to have so many who care.”

On top of toys and food items that are appreciated by Christmas Cheer, the organization is accepting cash donations to meet their goal of $250,000. The money raised helps buy any items that may not have been collected but are needed as well as covering any costs for the volunteer-based group.

For more information on how to volunteer and/or where to donate as well as check out the website