Family and friends pack native centre for Christmas party

There were smiles aplenty at the Niagara Regional Native Centre on Saturday as a team of dedicated volunteers fed breakfast to almost 400 people, including 172 children.

“It's absolutely incredible. So we posted the media on the Monday and the registration would open Wednesday,” said Willow Shawanoo, the native centre’s program co-ordinator.

“By the time I came in at 8:30 in the morning (Wednesday), our second timeframe, 1 to 3, was already full.”

In the kitchen, Chayan Dehghan and Wanda Griffin were frying eggs and pancakes, and baking breakfast sausages.

Dehghan also fried up a batch of sausages because he was worried the ones in the oven wouldn’t be ready in time to serve the next family.

Griffin was flipping pancakes on the flat top while a big bowl of batter sat next to her, pancake mixture running down the sides.

Together they estimate they went through 720 eggs and 750 sausages to feed the morning crowd.

Melanie Newman and Claudette Cort were both there with their sons Jackson and Eli.

Cort was eating with family members, Wilf and Karin Wiens.

Both mothers are involved with the centre’s Urban Indigenous Homeward Bound program.

“It's really just helped me have support when being a single mom and returning to school,” Newman said.

It’s a four-year program designed to support mothers with unstable housing as they go back to school or launch careers.

Newman’s son was drawing snowmen on the table and excitedly talking about his love of Buzz Lightyear.

While Karin Wiens took Eli to meet the Gingerbread Man, Cort shared some of her favourite memories of Christmas.

She remembers how she and her family used to pick out a tree together and how her mom would bake Christmas cookies this time of year.

“I'm Christian. And my family brought me up with that,” she said.

Cort said the message of Jesus Christ is an important part of how they celebrate Christmas.

Larissa Engels was volunteering at the party with a couple of other members of the Urban Indigenous Homeward Bound program.

She was dressed head to toe in red and green, looking very much like one of Santa’s little helpers.

Engels said Christmas is for “connecting with family and connecting with community like this. And just being in the spirit of giving.”

“When you receive, you should also give,” she added.

She described “the idea of reciprocity” as being “deeply embedded” in Indigenous communities.

A small group of volunteers went shopping on Black Friday to get a toy for every child who signed up for the Christmas party.

Shawanoo said the children’s gifts would have cost about $6,200 at regular price, but thanks to Black Friday sales, they only spent about $2,900.

Evan Loree, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report