The problem with you guys down at The Salvation Army,” a government liaison official once told Major Lloyd George, “is that you're too maternal.”

“I replied, 'Thank you!' ” smiles Major George, the executive director of the Wiseman Centre, a 20-bed shelter unit and 10-bed supportive housing unit located in St. John's, N.L. “We see our clients not as alcoholics or men with mental-health issues, but as part of our family. They need to be treated with dignity and respect, and feel loved and cared for. That's why we do what we do at Christmas.”

Enthusiastic Support
“Many of our clients come from difficult backgrounds,” continues Major George, “and have never had the kind of Christmas most people are used to.”

Four years ago, Major George and his staff resolved to make an extra effort to celebrate Christmas. He contacted Captain Danny Pinksen, the corps officer at Pathway Community Church, a Salvation Army church plant in Paradise, N.L., about partnering with the centre.

“Here was a young, vibrant congregation that I sensed was very community-oriented,” explains Major George. “After I outlined our plans, Captain Pinksen told me how interested they were in partnering with us. St. John's Citadel also enthusiastically supported the venture, as did St. John's Temple, and their support has been ongoing.”

Making a List and Checking it Twice
Each October, preparations begin in earnest, with companies and individuals around St. John's generously donating. Last year, for instance, students at Memorial University of Newfoundland's social work department presented a flat-screen TV to the delighted Wiseman clients.

Over the weeks leading up to Christmas, cash donations, toiletries and food donations come in from Salvation Army units all over the area, as well as books and DVDs, T-shirts, socks, pants and other clothes.

“What we do is bring it all together,” says Major George.

That's an understatement. Items aren't just thrown into boxes and wrapped up. A tremendous amount of work goes into the task. The needs and interests of every client are factored into each gift box. “We double-check for sizing and will change items at the last minute based on staff input,” says Major George. “Our supportive-housing unit clients submit a wish list and we try to accommodate at least an item or two from our stock of donations.”

Stuffing and Serenades
As Christmas nears, staff and clients start the task of decorating the building inside and out. “The men love to help put up the tree and the outdoor lights,” says Major George.

Pre-Christmas parties are held mid-month for both the clients in Wiseman's supportive-housing section and for former shelter clients, who are sent invitations by outreach workers as part of their transition back into the community.

But the main event occurs on Christmas Day. That morning, the Wiseman clients wake up to the first of many surprises in store for them. The night before, individualized Christmas stockings are hung on the door handles of the clients' rooms, filled with treats such as clementines, candy and toiletries.

Later, the clients assemble in the lobby to be greeted by gifts under the tree. “Everyone gets into the spirit as the gifts are opened and shown around,” says Major George. “It's wonderful to see.”

After a visit by Santa, the highlight of the day is Christmas dinner. Families from around the city volunteer to cook full-course meals for the Wiseman clients, complete with turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings. Staff and clients mingle and sing Christmas carols, often accompanied by choral groups who drop by to serenade one and all.

“A Reflection of God”
All this effort does not go unappreciated.

“Before I came to the Wiseman Centre, I never got any Christmas presents,” says Richard, a 36-year-old resident of the centre since 2006. “I was lonely because there was no one around me. But the last two Christmases have been the best of my life.”

“I like having friends around, seeing their smiling faces,” continues Randy, 61, who has been associated with the centre for a decade. “Life was difficult before. I was all alone. But the Wiseman Centre is one of the best places in the world.”

“We have daily devotions with the men,” says Major George, “so they know it's not just about the gifts. It's wonderful to see these men so excited about the birth of our Saviour. It's an especially warm atmosphere at Christmas.”

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