Coronavirus: Salvation Army Christmas hamper program goes appointment-only amid pandemic

London's Silverwood Arena in early November being prepared for the Christmas Hamper Program. Salvation Army Centre of Hope - London

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing some changes to the way London’s Salvation Army rolls out its annual Christmas hamper program this year.

In years past, the annual campaign has seen Londoners wait in long lines outside of the Western Fair Agriplex to receive a hamper of food and toys for the holidays.

But with the Agriplex still in use as a standby field hospital, and with ongoing concerns over potential transmission of the virus, Sally Ann officials say hampers will instead be distributed at four separate locations in the city through appointment-only pick-up.

Because of the pandemic’s impacts on the local economy, including a jobless rate of 8.9 per cent as of October, demand this year is expected to be higher than previous years, meaning those who want to book a spot should do so sooner rather than later.

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Londoners are being asked to either log onto the Salvation Army Centre of Hope website or phone 519-661-1359 to complete a registration application from now through to Dec. 4.

During registration, Londoners will be prompted to book a time to pick-up a hamper at one of four locations: Silverwood Park Arena (50 Sycamore St.); Salvation Army London Citadel (555 Springbank Dr.); Salvation Army Westminster Park Community Church (1190 Southdale Rd. E); and Salvation Army Hillcrest Community Church (310 Vesta Rd.)

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“We’re asking folks to register with us so that we can do all the proper processing when it comes to distancing and so on,” said John DeActis, executive director of the Salvation Army Centre of Hope.

“You register and you pick the site closest to your place, and then you just go there… we’ll have it set up as a drive-thru.”

The campaign and distribution of the hampers officially begins Thursday at Silverwood Arena, which will hand hampers out until Dec. 4. Afterwards, hampers will be distributed at London Citadel from Dec. 7 to 9, at Westminster Park Community Church from Dec. 10 to 11, and at Hillcrest Community Church from Dec. 14 to 18.

“We’re full already for the first two days,” DeActis said of the first Silverwood Arena slots. “I really believe we’re ready and it will go well, but, you know, we’ll work out some kinks, I’m sure, tomorrow and make sure that we get everybody taken care of.”

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The hampers will be distributed outside of each location, with motorists asked to remain in their vehicles. While long lines aren’t expected due to the appointment model, those coming on foot to retrieve a hamper are being advised to dress according to the forecast.

Due to coronavirus concerns, boxes of food won’t be handed out through the program this year. Instead, gift cards will be provided that will cover the cost of a Christmas meal.

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“We’re going to be handing out probably 6,500 bags of toys this year at all four different sites,” said DeActis, noting that number could reach 7,000. Last year, the campaign handed out around 6,300 bags to families, he says.

The program is running low on toys for children aged zero to two and nine to 12, but DeActis says some Londoners are already stepping up to help.

He adds that officials are also looking forward to donations that are set to come in from local toy drives, including those being held on Dec. 10 by Corus-owned London radio stations such as 980 CFPL. (Last year, the drives raised more than $39,000.)

“We’ve been getting tons of calls from folks (saying) ‘where can I drop something off? How do I do this? What can I do to help?'” he said.

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“Boy, I tell you, when the need is there, London always comes through.”

More information on this year’s Christmas hamper program can be found on the Salvation Army website.