Anatomy of a Christmas Kindness

A battle is raging inside the F.H. Collins Gadzoosdaa Student Residence common room.

Potato, turnip and carrot skins fly across the tabletop as 18 busy hands, armed with peelers, attack an army of vulnerable vegetables.

The veggie numbers are overwhelmingly intimidating with another 50-pound box waiting in reserve. But as another defeated, skinned potato is piled atop the overflowing basket, the conquerors are irrefutably clear.

These victors are the volunteers — teachers, parents and students — who have gathered at the dorm on a Friday afternoon to prepare the vegetables for the annual Christmas Seniors’ Dinner on Dec. 13, put on by the 2009 F.H. Collins graduating class.

Many Yukoners are familiar with the seniors’ dinner, but few are familiar with the behind-the-scenes work — the peeling, the cooking, the set up, the transportation, the food donations — that goes on to ensure the dinner’s success each year.

“I feel like I’m going to be judged,” jokes F.H. Collins teacher Myriane Parker to F.H. Collins Foods Worker Rob McGurk, who peels potatoes to her right.

The task at hand may be substantial, but the volunteers are all smiles, the mood in the room cheery and lighthearted.

“Everyone matters and every bit of help counts,” says Parker.

For McGurk, who was asked to help out with cooking and serving for this year’s event, “It’s all about community.” He says events like these are what school is all about and the reason he is more than willing to volunteer his time.

Parker and McGurk will be cooking food throughout Saturday in the Gadzoosdaa Student Residence as the kitchen space has been volunteered for the event.

For graduate parent Ruth McKenzie, contributing her time was a no-brainer.

“I’ve been involved since purple stew,” says McKenzie, who works at the Copper Ridge Centre. She says she is always happy to see the seniors and enjoys spending time with her son, who skins vegetables across the table from her.

“When I’m old, some younger kids will hopefully do it for me,” says Grade 12 student and Marsh Lake resident Daniel McKenzie, who, dressed in a grey tuxedo jacket, looks more ready for the actual event than the potato peeling task at hand.

“I won’t get another chance to do it,” says McKenzie, “It’s good karma and good conversation.”

Father Afan Jones, who has been involved with the dinner for two years now, enjoys giving to an annual community event that brings seniors and youth together.

“It’s a great way to stay connected with your child in their final year of school,” he says.

Another graduate, Victoria Pumphrey, who will also be assisting with set-up and coat-check, says she chose to get involved after attending a grad meeting at school. While this Newfoundland-born graduate says she can probably thank her Irish heritage for her green thumb, she is definitely “better at peeling potatoes now.”

“The seniors deserve to be pampered,” says Gadzoosdaa head chef, Gordon Parton, who has spent the day preparing turnips and getting people organized.

Parton has been involved with the event since 1993 and believes the seniors’ dinner is a wonderful opportunity for the “grads to strut their stuff” and “prove that teens can step up to the plate.”

Although this vegetable peeling force’s work is mighty in itself, there are many more volunteers involved in the preparation process. Take food coordinator Ellen Brian, who, in charge of food donations and transportation this year, has been in the planning process since late October.

She says 23 Yukon businesses, including the Whitehorse General Hospital, donated to this year’s event and “by large the response was favourable.”

Westmark Whitehorse alone donated four 11-litre pails of ice cream, 40 pounds of carrots and 140 pounds of meat to this year’s cause.

The hospital cafeteria then cooked the meat and gravy …

“… which is a big donation,” says Brian, “especially as they don’t have grads and they started when they had children graduating.

“I couldn’t cook that much meat,” Brian says laughing. Brian, along with other parent volunteers, ensured the loads of food were delivered from both hospital and the residence to the seniors’ dinner on time.

Plenty of other parents will also be helping with set up in the hours leading up to the dinner as well as working in the kitchen during the dinner, preparing ice cream, butter and buns, serving the piping hot meal and keeping it warm.

“It’s just nice to be helpful,” says parent Lois Johnston who is helping out in the kitchen at the Elks Lodge and looking forward to the enthusiasm of the seniors.

“There aren’t many times in society nowadays when young and old mix.”

Steve MacKenzie and his wife, Bonnie, often contribute to good causes by donating their Yukon-grown Yukon Gold potatoes from their Yukon Grain Farm.

Kitchen staff at Westmark Whitehorse (from left, Landis Kerluke, Sandra Bouvier and Van Tho Ho) helped gather up and load the donated food. Manger Heather McIntyre and Chef Marat Dreyshner donated 40 pounds of carrots and 44 litres of ice cream and let the organization buy 60 kilograms of inside round at Westmark’s cost.

Chef Leslie Sofko, from Whitehorse General Hospital, stayed late on the Saturday so that the roast beef could be picked up shortly after it was finished slow cooking all that day. He said it was important that it be served hot. Marianne Thompson, the nutrition service supervisor, says the kitchen has provided this free service to F.H. Collins for years because, “We all have kids.”

Victoria Pumphrey peels potatoes the night before at the Gadzoosdaa Student Residence the night before the dinner.

Gordon Parton, head chef at Gadzoosdaa Student Residence, has been supporting the Senior Dinner for 11 years by opening up his kitchen. “You can imagine for a chef to give free rein to the masses to use his kitchen takes a great deal of strength on his part,” says Housemaster Peter Cassidy.

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