Fans of Saint John's Empty Stocking Fund telethon lament its sudden end

·5 min read
A still from the Empty Stocking Fund telethon from 2019. After more than 80 years on air, and more than a century in operation, the charity is shutting down. (YouTube - image credit)
A still from the Empty Stocking Fund telethon from 2019. After more than 80 years on air, and more than a century in operation, the charity is shutting down. (YouTube - image credit)

Christopher Lane has great memories of Saint John's Empty Stocking Fund.

Now a music teacher and vocal coach, Lane got his start in music as a child singing in the Rotary Boys Choir.

The annual telethon was a big part of his early musical education in the 1980s and 1990s.

"The Empty Stocking Fund was always one of the best, the most important things to look forward to in the holiday season," Lane said in a phone interview.

YouTube
YouTube

"You know, it was sort of the unofficial kickoff to the Christmas season for many of us. And so you were always excited."

When Lane saw the note posted to the Empty Stocking Fund's Facebook page Monday night saying the charity was coming to an end, it hit pretty hard.

"I'm absolutely devastated. I think that it's horrible for the community, especially when we see the amount that's been raised in the past few years, and especially when we see the need in the community and the greater community coming out of COVID."

Long history

The Empty Stocking Fund has been a big part of Saint John's charitable landscape for decades.

Started by a newspaper reporter named Harry (Dutch) Ervin in 1912 as a simple act of kindness, his employer took it over the next year.  By the 1930s, the fundraiser was broadcast on CHSJ Radio and eventually moved to CHSJ television as an eight-hour telethon in 1959.

It has continued to be televised every November since, and has raised millions to provide Christmas gifts for needy families in that time.

Last year, the telethon, which continued to be sponsored Telegraph Journal, raised a record $260,000.

The sudden end came in a short statement Monday, which refers to the Telegraph-Journal's new owner. Postmedia bought Brunswick News from the Irving interests in February.

"It is bittersweet that today we are writing to let you know that we are winding down the Stocking Fund," the statement said. "With the recent sale of Brunswick News and the complexities of this multi-sponsor, multi-media endeavour, it was simply not possible to keep it going in its current form."

"The Empty Stocking Fund will suspend further operations and be wound down over the next month.

"While there will not be a telethon or fundraising drive for the 2022 season, the charity will distribute its remaining funds to approximately 2,000 children, through its partner agencies, this coming Christmas time."

A family tradition for many

"Yeah, that's really sad, actually," Amy Grant said, a twinge of emotion in her voice.

In an interview from her home, the Nauwigewauk native said the telethon was a big part of her family's life growing up.

"Back in the day, Mum always had it on her calendar, on the fridge," Grant said. "And that was the day that, like, we didn't go out, we didn't go anywhere … Mum usually made fruitcakes and that was a day we always decorated.

"Yeah, a special day that we always made sure that we stayed home and watched it."

It was so special, she says it remained a tradition as an adult.

"I've never stopped watching it. And yeah, it still gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling, you know, it reminds me of my childhood. Plus, you know, the little kids singing, it gets me every time."

Until now

Grant won't have that Christmas tradition this year, and she also worries what it will mean to the people who benefited from it.

"I still donate every year to this day. So, it's also sad that there are now going to be all these kids that don't get that money, that that money won't go towards these little kids who would like a nicer, better Christmas."

It's a sentiment repeated by Mike Molloy, a retired music teacher.

Over his career, Molloy prepared dozens of choirs and likely thousands of kids to take part in the telethon.

He chuckled when asked what it was like to be involved.

"It was organized chaos at times, particularly in the days when it was in the studio," Molloy said, referring to CHSJ on Crown Street.

"The space was limited. You had hundreds of kids there and everybody trying to put their coats somewhere where they'd be able to find them afterward."

Steven Webb/CBC
Steven Webb/CBC

"I quote one of my professors and say, 'It's good to do and good to have done.' At times you'd think, 'Why am I doing this?' but you know, when all is said and done it was a good experience and nobody can argue it wasn't a good cause."

It's a good cause he hopes the community can find a way to continue.

"I'm hopeful — I'm not going to say confident because I really don't know — but I'm hopeful that something can happen so it can continue in some shape or form."

Christopher Lane would like to see the community pushing for that to happen, too.

"I think it's a great outlet for so many young performers to have a chance to perform," he said. "And, you know, that concept of children helping children has always been at the heart of it.

"I think it's just a tragedy for the city to see this program ending."

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