By Leighann Chalykoff
Christmas came early to this fly-in community of 300.
The air in Chief Zzeh Gittlit School was thick with anticipation on Wednesday afternoon as the gifts were handed out.
It was, literally, the calm before a storm.
The 40-or-so grade-schoolers gathered in the front foyer were full from a lunch of pizza and oranges crated up from Whitehorse on an Air North flight earlier that day.
Then it was time for the main event.
Each child clutched a brightly wrapped package and waited for the signal to tear in.
Principal Gary Vokey gave the countdown and 80 little hands ripped the gift-wrap into an appropriate flurry of shredded paper and ribbons.
Soon the neatly wrapped boxes had morphed into dolls, trucks, sweaters, hats, scarves and mitts.
One kid eagerly unwrapped a whoopee cushion, the sound of which could be heard over and over again through the excited din.
Amid the kafuffle, 11-year-old April Kassie cut a cheerful Christmas figure.
She was aptly dressed for the day in a red-and-green-striped elf hat.
She tore into her specially selected Christmas package to find a matching hat, mitts and scarf set coloured in a brilliant orange and pink.
“I like pink,” she said with a shy smile.
Nearby, Allison Schafer-Greenland proudly displayed her gift — a Sing-a-Long Sally doll — and a throng of boys raced toy cars along the school’s carpeted floor.
The dozens of gifts, pizza and oranges were carried to Old Crow by three reps from the Bank of Montreal — branch manager Richard Oviatt, financial planner Andrew Zinck and financial services co-ordinator Rose Murdoch.
The idea to distribute gifts was hatched in 1999 by Murdoch.
“I felt the whole community should be supported,” she said.
“This way everybody can get involved community-wise.”
Now, each year, the bank erects an Angel Tree in its Main Street Whitehorse branch.
The fir is covered in paper angels, each bearing the name and age of a child in need.
Then, those who want to donate to the cause pluck an angel from the tree and buy a suitable $25 to $30 gift.
This year, more than 300 presents were donated to the bank. That topped the yearly average, which usually runs between 200 and 300, said Murdoch.
Then the bank distributes the gifts and to underprivileged children in Whitehorse and one rural community, chosen each year.
This year it was Old Crow, and because of the community’s small population each child received a present.
“It was overwhelming,” Murdoch said after watching the kids unwrap their gifts.
“It makes you feel like everything you’ve been working towards was worth it.”
Murdoch came up with the idea after seeing a similar program put smiles on children’s faces in a holiday TV show.
And, along with collecting donated presents, Murdoch tapped local businesses for contributions — Air North donated flights, Pizza Hut contributed pizza, Wal-Mart donated juice boxes and SuperValu gave oranges.
The generosity turned the Old Crow gathering into a true community event.
“I was really pleased; it brought the community together today,” said Vokey.
“The children — every one of them are happy. They’re really appreciative that someone from outside would come in and present the gifts like that.”
“It reminds us to be kind to each other and help each other out,” Vuntut Gwitchin chief Joe Linklater told the children while they opened the presents.
“What do we say to these people for bringing these gifts and food?” Vokey asked the children.
“Mahsi’ Choo,” they replied in a loud chorus.