meechum wreath of hope_0416Christmas brings families together throughout Eeyou Istchee. For most, a turkey dinner with all the fixing and gifts under the tree are an integral part of the holiday.

Yet for a small minority, those things are out of reach. Putting any food on the table and paying the bills takes precedent over expensive feasts and presents.

That’s where Cree communities are banding together and stepping in, ensuring the less fortunate amongst them are able to have a good meal and provide toys to their children.

Meechum’s, a grocery store in Mistissini, has been home-base for a food drive and gift exchange for over 10 years.

Beverly Quinn, an owner of the grocery store, says she is consistently impressed with how the community supports its fundraising efforts.

“It’s something we’ve done for so long in this community. It’s consistent. As soon as they know we’re decorating, they know that we’re going to be preparing the angel tree.”

The Wreath of Hope was developed by Quinn, her husband and two other women from the Cree Health Board.

The concept is simple. A large wreath is displayed in the store, adorned with candles. And the more people donate, the more candles get lit. The amount raised is displayed alongside the wreath, handwritten by Quinn with a big black felt pen.

The money raised is used to create Christmas baskets, which are distributed to community members in the days leading up the big day.

“We put a large turkey and fruit – you know those mandarin oranges – in the basket, and candles and juice. Everything you need for a Christmas dinner,” said Quinn.

In addition to the baskets, every family receives a gift card, valued at between $250 and $400.

Quinn says that the gift certificates help alleviate the pinch felt by families during the holidays.

“They come in and purchase what they need at home. They know what their necessities are. It’s basically groceries that will help them through the holiday. But it’s important that people shop for themselves. For example, young mothers may need baby milk and diapers.” 

Meechum’s also features the Angel Tree, a Christmas tree with stars hanging on it. Written upon these stars, the age and gender of less fortunate children in the community. 

Irene Quinn, Beverly’s daughter-in-law, has been working at the store and on the projects for years.

The donations, she says, come from community members, businesses and the band council. The local bank and band council, she says, are major contributors.

In order to determine who could use the extra help, the community has formed a committee. Made up of members from a number of Mistissini entities – including the health department, welfare department and band office – they put together a list of families and children.

Discretion, says Irene, is a priority for the group, as families may not want to be identified as needing charity. She says that the large group of volunteers who help the store pull off the charity drive every year appreciate that.

For Irene, the Wreath of Hope and Angel Tree are points of pride. They require a lot of work, coordination and planning. But she says that helping her community makes it all worthwhile.

“The whole pay-it-forward mentality comes into play. My children have grown up knowing what the cause is about. Being able to give back feels great. It’s important for my children to know that there are people out there who have little, and who need this support. It really hits home.” 

Collaborative, grassroots fundraisers like this one are underway in many other Cree communities.

In Chisasibi – where the Fire Department has raised money and distributed food vouchers for years – the Justice Department is getting into the game for the first time.

They have set up baskets in the community’s grocery and convenience stores. And they will drive around the community and collect food door-to-door.

But rather than rely on volunteers, the Justice Department’s effort features a special twist. It is being carried out by people involved in the system.

“They’re going door-to-door, picking up dry goods or whatever people are donating. And they will help sort out the food out and distribute it. It’s an opportunity for them to give back to the community. And it shows that they’re trying to change,” said Marlene Bearskin, a justice officer for Chisasibi.

Back in Mistissini, things are ramping up, as fundraising for the Wreath of Hope kicks into high gear.

When it started the fundraiser, Meechum’s originally asked people to donate goods. But after time, the amount of food given increased, forcing them to rent a gym in order to sort it all out. “It was simply overwhelming how much food we were receiving,” said Beverly.

She says that community continues to give generously.

But despite her involvement in organizing both the Wreath of Hope and Angel Tree, Beverly does not actually take part in the delivery of the dinners or toys.

She did once. But she says she found it too emotional, and too overwhelming.

She says she remembers children, standing at the end of a hallway as she entered a home. They looked down at her, shrieked, overjoyed at what she was bringing.

“I choked up because I realized how excited they were. I grew up with no Santa Claus. I can still see them down the hallway. I don’t think I can go in another home without crying.”