CONNECTING THE COMMUNITY ON CHRISTMAS DAY
by Claudio Donisi
“No Australian should be alone on Christmas Day” is the passionate cry of Lee-Ann Boyle, Service Manager for St. Mary’s House of Welcome. “Everyone should have a supportive Christmas, especially the neediest and those on their own.”
Christmas is an important time for many, whether celebrating its spiritual significance or the opportunity for friends, families and loved ones to gather and rejoice in each other’s company. For those who are not able to share Christmas with others due to homelessness, family breakdown, family distance or bereavement, it can be a lonely and isolating time.
In recognition of the psycho-social impact of loneliness, some Melbourne charities are putting on Christmas Day events catering to people who are not able to spend Christmas with friends or relatives.
For 15 years, VincentCare’s Ozanam Community Centre in North Melbourne has been hosting a Christmas Lunch for homeless and disadvantaged people. Last year it managed to provide 248 people with a fully catered two course meal.
“We used to have about 200 guests when we first started. Each year it keeps increasing,” said Louise Augustinus, the Inner Melbourne Community Hub Volunteer Co-ordinator who oversees volunteer programs at VincentCare.
St Mary’s House of Welcome hosts “The Big Give” Christmas Day Lunch program. Started in 2003 and initially hosted at the Richmond Football Club, The Big Give now offers a three course meal to over 300 disadvantaged people at Fitzroy Town Hall every year. Both lunch programs feature Santa’s, music, food parcels, and gifts for all the guests, especially those with children.
Both services report changing client groups and are facing an increasing need, and families with young children, long-term mentally ill, the elderly and culturally and linguistically diverse groups are becoming more common.
“We had to make it a ticketed event now. We want to protect the intimacy and warmth of a smaller group but I feel hideous and horrible when I have to turn people away,” said Lee-Ann.
Both events receive considerable support from local communities and businesses who volunteer staff, food, gifts and equipment. “A local costume shop even provides the Santa suits,” said Lee- Ann.
For both VincentCare and St. Mary’s House of Welcome, the most important aspect of the day is not the provision of meals but the spirit of sharing that volunteers and guests embody.
“For the socially isolated and homeless it is the atmosphere that makes it special, being with other people. It is like a family,” said Louise.
Both organisations also acknowledge the importance volunteers play in making these events so significant. At Ozanam Community Centre, over 20 volunteers cook, serve and support guests across two lunch sittings.
“They come from every walk of life. Our agency CEO, corporate staff, students, people seeking work experience, people who have volunteered for many years, family members of staff, they all want to give back to the community,” said Louise.
At St. Mary’s House of Welcome, over 100 volunteers attend the lunch event. According to Lee-Ann, “Christmas can also be a lonely time for people who volunteer. Volunteers may also not have loved ones around at Christmas. Volunteering gives people a feeling of connectedness that is shared with others. Both guests and volunteers together create the awesome and beautiful sense of family that makes it such a great day.”
For Louise and Lee-Ann, volunteering is the foundation for success in all their programs.
“We provide over 7000 meals per month. We have over 140 volunteers across our agency. We can’t serve our community without them,” said Louise.
Lee-Ann commented: “you can train volunteers but you can’t teach giving to others. That is something that comes from inside.”
For further information about “The Big Give,” visit www.thebiggive.org.au. Ozanam Community Centre can be contacted through VincentCare on 9329 5100.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 edition of the Northsider.