EDMONTON, AB - The atmosphere at Thursday's Inner City High Luncheon was already festive by the time a set of Oilers players arrived in the Coventry Homes Club.
Holiday helpings of turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and traditional stuffing had been served to more than 100 students from Inner City High School, who were treated to the feast and Hockey 101 at Rogers Place along with the chance to interact with some of their favourite Oilers.
"It's quite an experience that they wouldn't normally get," Joe Cloutier, former Principal and current Chief Operating Officer of Inner City High School, said. "It's also knowing what the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation (EOCF) does for the school and for the students helping them succeed and giving them a place they can call home.
"It's one of the few stable things they have in their lives."
The EOCF purchased the building that now serves as Inner City High School's home on 101st Street in December of 2010, providing a stable and consistent path for at-risk youth that goes beyond the classroom by helping them achieve their full potential both academically and personally.
Students study and develop fundamental life skills that can help them shake a tumultuous past, receiving services for education, counselling, nutrition and medical care along the way.
Video: AROUND THE RINK | A Very Oilers Christmas
"I think many see it as their last chance, and certainly that's what many hope," Cloutier said. "When you go from crisis to crisis, how can you even begin to study when you don't have a place to live? When we can provide those basic needs and a stable place in their lives that they can count on, then we can begin to look more to the future."
Signing autographs and sharing stories brought plenty of warmth for the holidays for both players and students. Oilers in attendance like Zack Kassian jump at the chance to participate in the community at events like the luncheon during the busy Christmas season.
"It's a good busy," Kassian said. "The Christmas holidays are always a fun thing to be a part of, especially playing for such a great organization like the Oilers. There's a lot of things to do, a lot of things to give back, and it's a fun time.
"These kids that are working hard, getting second chances to do something with their lives, so it's kind of cool to come out and see them and how happy they are to see us. They look up to us as hockey players, but we also look up to them."
Thursday's Luncheon has been part of a packed month of giving for the EOCF that started on December 14 with Shirts Off Our Backs before executives served food at last Monday's Hope Mission family banquet and players attended Friday's annual hospital visits.
"Christmas is a really busy time of year, but also a special one where we can all help and support our neighbours and our other families helping spread the Christmas cheer," Natalie Minckler, Executive Director of the EOCF, said.
"We have a really busy hockey schedule, and we do every year. But our players always take the time to help out and participate in community activities when we ask them. It's from spending time with kids from Inner City High School to doing our annual hospital visits, visiting those kids who maybe can't go home for the holidays, it really does bring a smile to everyone and our players included."