Bittersweet memories for Christmas Cheer founder |

Bittersweet memories for Christmas Cheer founder

Nat Sinclair and his late wife, Bonita, had a vision of bettering their community.

Kind hearts and insight led Nat and Bonita to the realization that hundreds of people in their town were going hungry each day; so in 1979, the couple founded Christmas Cheer.

A volunteer organization, exclusive to South Lake Tahoe, Christmas Cheer collects donations of food, clothing, coats and toys for families and individuals in need.

“We got the idea from the New York Times,” said Nat Sinclair, who is recovering from his second major stroke at Barton Memorial Hospital’s Skilled Nursing Facility. “We saw the poor being fed when we lived in New York and we wanted to do it here.”

At a time when there was no organized food pantry or year-round charity collection in South Tahoe, Nat and Bonita recognized the growing need and took matters into their own hands.

“We did it together,” Sinclair said. “It was a labor of love.”

With a sincere dedication to helping others, the Sinclairs originally ran Christmas Cheer right out of their home. They offered food and clothing to all who needed it, even if it meant giving money from their own pockets or clothes from their own closets. And they provided these services on a strictly volunteer basis.

“The story Nat told me is that when he did Christmas Cheer, you didn’t have to meet any sort of criteria,” said Zella Jacobson, director of nursing at the skilled nursing facility. “If someone came in and said ‘I have a job interview and I don’t have a decent suit or a bus ticket,’ then Nat would get them a suit and a bus ticket.”

Bonita was known for her baked goods, which she sold in front of the grocery stores once a month to raise money for the less fortunate in the community.

“I was the No. 1 taster,” Sinclair said. “She’d bake cookies and I’d taste them.”

Bonita also started a year-round food pantry on San Francisco Street in 1985 and another on Fairway Drive in 1993.

Initially put off by the churches in the community, Sinclair eventually spoke with the Rev. John Grace of St. Theresa Catholic Church who volunteered his time and the church’s kitchen for the charity.

“I was disappointed in the churches,” Sinclair said. “They pushed me aside. There was only one who wanted to help and that was Father Grace. We could use the kitchen to cook and wash dishes.”

After Bonita’s death in 1995, Nat continued to work hard for the charitable organization. It was not until he became ill that he reluctantly stepped aside and passed on his vision to others.

Still, what Nat and Bonita started is a long way from finished. Christmas Cheer is still going strong and continues to help more and more people each year.

“There were a lot of volunteers,” Sinclair said. “We couldn’t have done it without help.”

When the program began in 1979, more than 100 people were clothed and fed thanks to Nat and Bonita. The number of monthly food vouchers given out through Christmas Cheer in 1998 totaled 10,905. Currently 55 daily food rations are given out three times per week. Toys are donated throughout the year, especially around the holidays, although Sinclair said that people should help all year long.

“It’s Christmas Cheer all the year,” Sinclair said.

For information about Christmas Cheer, call (530) 542-4934 or visit the Christmas Cheer headquarters at 2085 Eloise Ave., open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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