By David Southwell
You might imagine that, as a single mother of three, working two part-time jobs and looking after an aged parent, Eileen would have more than enough on her plate at Christmas.
However, she also finds time to help those most in need.
For five years, Eileen has busied herself with voluntary work for the Uniting Vic.Tas Food for Families appeal, which collects donated goods to distribute to those facing a not-so-merry Christmas and new year.
“Everyone wants to do something to give back at Christmas, but it’s such a busy time,” Eileen says.
“Donating food is a practical way to help people going through a tough period.”
Last year, the Food for Families appeal distributed 50 tonnes of food and toiletries, but this only lasted to July, so this year’s target is 70 tonnes.
The increased need is no surprise to Eileen, who is a professional social worker. “There are a growing number of people who don’t have the resources to put food on the table, especially at Christmas,” she says.
Uniting Vic.Tas Director of Mission Rev John Clarke says the festive time of year can be particularly difficult for those struggling either financially or for other reasons.
“Christmas can be a joyful time of year for many, but for the marginalised, the least and the lost, it can be a time of sadness and isolation,” he says.
“While many celebrate with carols and gifts, others are struggling with loss and just trying to keep it all together.
“Some people will need a safe place to sleep or food to feed their family.”
Each year as part of her volunteering for Uniting Vic.Tas, Eileen hands donation boxes to families, friends, local schools and work colleagues and picks them up when they are filled with donated goods.
“Food for Families is an easy way people can help others in need,” she says.
“I say to people, just do your normal shopping and get a few extra items to donate,” she says.
“One or two bags can make a big difference. It’s an opportunity to give back at a time of giving.”
Eileen enlists the help of her children to sort, pack and deliver food to the Uniting Vic.Tas emergency relief centre in Ringwood.
“I want to teach my children that Christmas can be very materialistic, but it should be about giving back to your community,” she says.
“Participating in Food for Families has given my children a greater understanding of the struggles some people face in life.
“I like knowing that the goods I donate will support people in my local community.”
This year, Food for Families celebrates its 25th anniversary. Another charity celebrating a major milestone is the Christmas Bowl appeal, which invites Australian Christians of many traditions to stretch out a helping hand across the globe.
Since the appeal was started 70 years ago by Victorian Methodist Minister Rev Frank Byatt, who compared his sumptuous Christmas dinner to the desperate plight of the displaced millions after World War II, it has raised more than $100 million.
This year will see about 1300 Australian churches across 15 denominations join to help those fleeing conflict and disaster or give to wherever it is most needed, such as areas of drought and famine or where there is a lack of basic education and healthcare.
Last year, the appeal raised $2.3 million, which was mainly used to help provide shelter and medical support to Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar.
Christmas Bowl Appeal Manager Hannah Montgomery says the need for help is at least as great as when the appeal started in 1949.
“We are facing the biggest refugee crisis since WWII, with more than 70 million people uprooted from their homes because of conflict and disaster,” she says.
Ringwood Uniting Church Minister Rev Lucas Taylor says the appeal “provides an opportunity to connect the Christmas message to a tangible action”. “It shares the abundance of our own situations with a global community,” he says.
“Christmas commonly offers giving to loved ones and friends, which is fantastic, but there is something deeply beautiful about giving a gift where you’ll never see the actual reaction of the person receiving that gift. There is a purity to that kind of generosity.”
Making a difference
When Peter became a father he made a vow – one he has fulfilled, but not without moments of despair.
“When Ally was born, I promised I would do whatever I could to protect her,” he says.
Shortly afterwards, Peter separated from Ally’s mother, which led to an expensive custody battle. Peter gained full custody, but being unable to work, he was financially drained.
“I had no food in the house because all my money was spent on court fees,” he says.
“To not be able to put food on the table was absolutely soul shattering. I used to get embarrassed about asking for help, but now I know it’s acceptable.”
Uniting Vic.Tas has been assisting Peter, including providing items donated at last year’s Food for Families appeal.
“The team at Uniting are fantastic. I know I have somewhere to turn. I don’t have to drive myself crazy with worry about how I’m going to put a meal on the table,” Peter says.
“The people who donate food and other essential living items, especially at Christmas time, should know how appreciated their generosity is. I received a hamper last Christmas and it was fantastic. When you’re doing things tough, it makes the world of difference.”
Names have been changed to protect identity.