It is a service that is designed to get people home safely over the holiday season and help keep impaired drivers off the streets. But it has also become a big fundraiser for several community groups.

Operation Red Nose first started in Quebec and it is the 40th year the service has been offered. Since the first in 1984, the idea has expanded across the country, and in Manitoba, it has been running for close to 30 years in Winnipeg. Portage la Prairie has offered it for almost 20 years and this year, 10 communities in our province are running it.

The concept is simple. Volunteer drivers pick you up and drive you and your vehicle home safely. Two of the volunteers bring the client home in their vehicle while a third person follows in an escort vehicle to pick the first two up when the ride is over. The service is offered for free and there is no requirement to donate, however, if people choose to do so, the money goes back to different community groups, most of which provide volunteers for that particular day or weekend.

This past weekend, despite a Friday night storm and some less-than-ideal weather that kept the teams closer to home, 66 rides were given to people in the Portage area with all donations going to the Gage Foster athletic scholarship fund. Foster was an accomplished athlete at PCI who lost his life in 2018 in an accident involving an impaired driver. Shortly after, the fund was established through the Community Foundation of Portage and District and it grants an annual sum of money to PCI student who shows commitment and dedication and plans to continue their education and athletics at the next level. Kye Parker was the recipient in 2023.

Dave McLeod, who has coached basketball at Portage Collegiate for many years, is one of several people who helped get the fund going, and he's the main organizer of Gage Foster Operation Red Nose weekend each year. 

"I mean, it's a great program. We want to keep people off the streets who have been drinking, or just people who are just tired and need a ride home. But it also helps keep Gage's memory alive. I know it's very important to his parents and so many others. We plan to keep doing it as long as they will let us.  I think last year the fund gave $1,700 to a student-athlete and they become somebody that's out in the community doing something Gage would have done."

McLeod notes that as time moves on, it gets a little tougher to find volunteers for the weekend but adds people still seem to step up.

"Some for Gage and some just to help out. We had teams from Simplot, MPI and the city to go along with others who have been there each year"

Mayor Sharilyn Knox was involved with the team from city council and it was her first time. The mayor says she enjoyed the experience.

"I've used it before but this was the first as a volunteer. It was a great night and even though I like to go to bed early, it was lots of fun to help people get home, especially with the bad weather we had that night. Leo (Lapointe) does such a fantastic job keeping everything running and we are grateful to have him and the other involved. Donations were great and it is an amazing service to have available in our community."

The service says on average more than 4,000 Manitobans use Operation Red Nose annually and in Portage, they will be out and about each Friday and Saturday night for the rest of the month along with New Years Eve. To book a ride call 204-239-5570 between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. The service is also being offered in Winnipeg, Brandon, Flin Flon, Gimli, La Broquerie/Steinbach, Saint-Malo, Shilo, The Pas and Thompson.

red nose teamsThe teams at the headquarters waiting for calls to come in