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COMMUNITY: Shirts Off Our Backs helping create holiday memories

This year's donations are expected to help put a Christmas meal on the table for nearly 20,000 families and 60,000 people in the city of Edmonton

by Jamie Umbach /

EDMONTON, AB - Every year, Brenda and Barry Hunka purchase their raffle tickets along with the masses on Shirts Off Our Backs night at Rogers Place to support the Christmas Bureau of Edmonton.

Being presented a signed jersey on the ice by an Oilers player is an added bonus, but secondary to the lengths to which the contributions will be felt in the homes of families in need this holiday season.

"It doesn't matter," Brenda said when asked whose jersey she would've liked to receive on the ice back on Friday night if her number was called. "It's not the winning part, it's about participating and giving your donation."

Video: COMMUNITY | Shirts off our Backs

Year after year, the cause keeps them coming back.

"We've supported Edmonton and even back in Vegreville in the community, and we've also attended many events at the Shaw Conference Centre when they used to have the dinner for the Christmas Bureau for fundraising," Brenda said.

"We do this every year. We've been Oilers Season Ticket Holders for many, many years, and it's very important to make sure someone has something under the tree and a good hot meal at Christmas time. We even went around Rogers Place and came back here to buy more tickets."

The Christmas Bureau of Edmonton, a not-for-profit focused on providing festive meals to needing families in the city, teamed up with the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation (EOCF) and honourary chairs the Oilers Ladies and Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) Vice Chair Kevin Lowe for over 30 years.

This year, donations are expected to help put a Christmas meal on the table for nearly 20,000 families and 60,000 people in the city of Edmonton.

"It's amazing what this event does for us," Darlene Kowalchuk, Executive Director of Christmas Bureau of Edmonton, said. "It brings a real awareness to the Christmas Bureau and the need of families in Edmonton, but it also brings us some much-needed resources. Last year the $75,000 that was donated served many families and provided some much-needed assistance. It's amazing and so heartwarming."

After a year of turmoil for many Albertan families this year, the need for contributions is even greater this holiday season.

"It's an incredible need out there and it's a greater need this year in that we're seeing people find it difficult and are struggling this year," Kowalchuk continued. "The bubble has burst in Edmonton for sure, so we're finding it a bit more of a struggle. Even some of our volunteers and some of our donors have been around for a while are needing that assistance this year because things are a little tough."

Contributions from Oilers fans supporting the Christmas Bureau will go a long way in their communities this holiday season, helping their neighbours and friends in need.

"The Christmas Bureau does such great work in our community, and it's really about families helping families. Our economy is a little bit tough right now at this time of the year, so anything we can do to support our neighbours and friends, I think we certainly want to help out where we can and our fans are so wonderful in supporting the activities of the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation. It's a big night for them and a wonderful opportunity for fans and the EOCF to show our appreciation for the good work that they do."

Janelle Benning of the Oilers Ladies recalls her personal memories sitting around the table at Christmas with family and how vital it is for Edmontonians to support and help create holiday memories for struggling families.

"It doesn't surprise me because people are so generous," Benning said of Edmonton's ability to rally behind a cause. "Edmonton is a city, but it almost has a small-town vibe, so everybody just wants to help everybody else and it doesn't surprise me. They're so supportive and numerous people come up and say they'll buy $20 worth because it's a great cause.

"I think back on my own childhood and all the memories around the table. You have a meal, play cards or socialize, and that's where you get to slow down your day in this crazy, busy world and you get to spend quality time with your family and enjoy a good meal and company. That's important for my family and for us, so those moments are cherished."

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