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Christmas spirit alive in Victoria's businesses

Despite the economic downturn, generosity is evident around the region

Although the current financial crisis is rocking economies near and far, the spirit of Christmas is strong among local businesses as they make donations, team up to stage holiday dinners for those in need and spearhead charity drives.

Employees in workplaces throughout the capital region are also at the forefront of holiday campaigns. Raffles at office Christmas parties, adoptions of families and donations of money and gifts are happening throughout the region.

Mustard Seed Food Bank director Brent Palmer said this is the toughest year for donations he has seen in 24 years, and he attributes that to global financial woes. "I think there's a degree of uncertainty out there."

The food bank is down about 59,000 kilograms of food compared with the same time last year, Palmer said yesterday. Donations during the annual Christmas campaign help carry the food bank through the first months of the coming year, typically a lean time for contributions.

Demographics of those coming for help are changing, with more seniors and more working poor coming through the doors. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people are expected to be helped through the food bank this month alone, he said.

"Businesses play a big, big part in our operations here," Palmer said. "Their donations are quite large in some cases."

Some, such as supermarkets large and small, donate throughout the year and run special events to keep the shelves stocked.

The Victoria CA (chartered accountants) association donates to the Mustard Seed this time every year. The association's recent Christmas party raised $2,400 for the food bank, vice-president Erin Solbakken said. A $1,200 cheque from the Victoria Estate Planning Council was also delivered to the food bank, where every household gets a turkey this year.

Palmer tells of a single man who froze portions and managed to stretch a bird into two months of meals.

Cadillac Fairview kicked off this year's Spirit of Giving campaign, which supports the Mustard Seed, with a $10,000 donation, said Bay Centre manager Darlene Holstein. In the campaign's 10 years, it has raised more than $2 million through donations of money, food and other in-kind contributions.

Donations so far this year are "trending down about 25 per cent versus last year," she said. "There really is a need, and it really is urgent because of the cold weather."

The 52nd annual Times Colonist Christmas Fund, which raised $225,250 last year, is collecting money for grocery vouchers and gift cards for children's' presents.

"There seems to be more and more need. We are getting more names from the Christmas Bureau this year, so we are doing what we can," said Kathy Baan, Times Colonist promotions manager. The newspaper covers all administration costs so that 100 per cent of donations go to people in need.

Seasonal special events raising money for the Christmas Fund include a pancake breakfast earlier this month at the Chateau Victoria hotel, which brought in $4,300, Baan said.

Skippers line up every year for a chance to dress up as Santa Claus and ferry passengers on a special by-donation Victoria Harbour Tour. Decorated Victoria Harbour Ferries ships started this campaign Saturday and run until Dec. 23. This fundraising event supports C-FAX Santas Anonymous. This is the 15th year of the Santa Ships, which normally raise several thousands dollars, said Barry Hobbis, ferry company director of operations. The company donates the boats, fuel and decorations. "It's a hoot," he said.

Santas Anonymous administrator Dusty Cunningham said they have been inundated with requests this year and expect to be well over the usual goal of 1,070 hampers. About $120,000 is expected to be raised this year, along with $250,000 worth of toys and gifts, she said. "Victoria is very generous."

A downtown forest of glittering trees, sponsored by 73 businesses, are working their annual magic to help sick children. A total of 120 businesses sponsor trees and donate items for a special auction for the 17th annual B.C. Children's Hospital Festival of Trees at the Fairmont Empress. This year's goal is to raise $110,000, and so far $93,000 has come in, said event chairman Andrew Duffy.

The hotel's contribution includes providing the space, covering electrical costs and catering and staffing the event's gala. "You want to talk about people who just give and give and give to us -- the Empress is amazing," Duffy said.

At the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites, $10 from each booking between Dec. 20 and 26 goes to the Mustard Seed Food Bank.

Further afield, Little Thai Place, planning a Jan. 3 grand opening at its newest location at 137-2745 Veterans Memorial Parkway, is starting a program to help children living in poverty in a small town in Thailand.

cjwilson@tc.canwest.com