By Jeff Labine
The Chronicle-Journal

For Samantha Nanokeesic, being able to provide gifts for her children on Christmas while on a fixed income is what she describes as “a godsend.”

Hundreds packed into the Valhalla Inn on Sunday for the 23rd annual Christmas dinner, which is put on each year by the Thunder Bay Salvation Army. The menu featured all the trimmings including turkey, stuffing, mash potatoes and vegetables.

In addition to the food, children were able to meet Santa Claus and take a picture with the jolly ol’ elf while parents could go into the toys area to pick out gifts.

Nanokeesic, who attended the dinner with her children, was the first shopper to look at the various toys and gifts. While moving from table to table, she couldn’t contain her amazement.

“As a family on Ontario Works, this helps to get gifts that I normally can’t get,” she said. “It’s like a godsend. (They are) angels in disguise.”

Ophelia Moonias was hoping attending the dinner would help get her and her children into the Christmas spirit. She explained that things have been tough as they are without a home at the moment and she’s in between jobs.

She said it has been hard to stay positive but was thankful to have an opportunity provided by the Salvation Army and Valhalla Inn.

“They wanted to see Santa and enjoy the meal,” she said.

”(We don’t have) a home right now. (We’re) going day-by-day.”

Salvation Army executive director Lori Mitchell said she wasn’t sure how many would be arriving to the dinner but around 360 attended last year, which is what she is expecting for this year or possibly even more.

The dinner is for those who are alone or may not have the means to have a big Christmas dinner. Mitchell explained it’s a chance for some people to experience what many take for granted ever year.

“I think this is one of those things people look forward to,” she said. “When you have something to look forward, I think that it gives you a sense of hope. There are people out there who do care about you and who want to make things special for you.”

While some might believe homelessness is an adult problem, Mitchell said that’s simply not the case as many families with children attend the dinners each year.

A portion of the dinner is sponsored through the Salvation Army’s kettle campaign, although the Valhalla Inn provides the space, staff and meal free of charge. Mitchell explained that many of the toys are donated but in some cases they have to go out and purchase gifts with the campaign funds.

On Saturday, The Chronicle-Journal reported the kettle campaign was struggling as donations weren’t coming in as much as last year. As of Friday, the total amount collected was $72,042, about $7,000 less than a year ago.

Mitchell didn’t let the fact they were down a bit discourage her as she believes the weather played a part in why fewer donations were coming in. She said she’s confident they will make their goal.

Giuseppe Sirignano, the hotel’s assistant general manager and director of food and beverage, said they keep offering to host the dinner because it provides them a chance to offer something nice around the holidays.

Sirignano said a lot of effort goes into preparing the ballroom for the hundreds who attend. He mentioned that staff had to setup for a Christmas party that was held over the weekend and then quickly clean up and prepare for the dinner on Sunday.

It’s all worth it to see the smile’s on people’s faces, he said.

“At this time of year, everyone needs a little extra help,” he added. “We’re able to do it and provide something for the community. It makes us feel really good, too. The hotel donates all the food and the staff come in and donates their time. There’s people who bring their families to come serve. It becomes a real family atmosphere here at the hotel.”