North Shore community 'steps up' to make Christmas Day brighter for 2,500 vulnerable residents

·4 min read

The North Shore community has truly “stepped up” to make Christmas Day special for more than 2000 vulnerable residents who needed extra support this holiday season.

Family Services of the North Shore’s annual Christmas Bureau tradition has been making Christmas merrier for vulnerable community members for more than 40 years, and this year was no exception.

Despite the challenges and changes that have come with adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, the non-profit agency’s volunteer-driven team went above and beyond to make wishes come true for even more clients than usual.

This year, 2,500 residents will have a brighter Christmas Day – with a meal on the table and presents to open – thanks to the combined efforts of Family Services staff, more than 400 volunteers, and many generous donations.

“We have delivered approximately 1100 holiday gift baskets and approximately 1300 toy boxes for our clients this year,” said Michele Varley, Family Services North Shore volunteers and community engagement manager.

Varley, who has managed the Christmas Bureau for five years now, said the agency’s client base had increased by more than 20 per cent this year, with food security the number one concern for vulnerable community members. With 400 extra clients to help this festive season, she said the team was initially worried they wouldn’t be able to meet demand.

“Christmas Bureau kind of infers that it’s just gifts and that it just once a year, but our program really is all year round and it is about food support and so many other resources and connections,” she said, adding that volunteers had been making regular calls to clients since the pandemic hit in March and providing extra support and grocery deliveries.

“We were concerned because we knew the need was going to be greater, but the community totally stepped up and all our families were matched with sponsor families on the North Shore.”

Sponsoring a client costs about $100 per person and includes a $50 grocery gift card and a present, the client has placed on their wish list, between $40 and $50 that goes into a holiday gift basket.

“The community has been amazing,” said Varley. “Often they put in extras like Christmas treats and chocolates and they decorate the containers that they put the baskets in, because often that’s the only Christmas décor the families have.”

She said many clients put basic needs on their wish lists, including winter clothing and hygiene items like shampoo, and so the agency now collects gently used clothing items and puts together hygiene packs for clients, so they can use their Christmas wish for something special if they choose to.

While some traditions stayed the same, others, like the annual Toy Drive had to change because of pandemic restrictions. The event couldn’t go ahead, but Varely said the agency still received an overwhelming amount of new toy donations from residents, local schools, community organisations, and businesses, ensuring clients were able to wrap presents to give to their children.

Varley said one of the biggest changes for the Christmas Bureau this year was not having clients come into the agency for appointments.

“We’ve done all our interviews over the phone and our volunteers have done the toy shopping for our clients,” she said.

In past years, she said the centre would be beautifully decorated by volunteers for clients to enjoy a special festive moment and pick out toys for their children.

“They would come half an hour before their appointment to do their interview and have freshly baked cookies, that our volunteers would bring in, and have a cup of coffee with a neighbour and just enjoy the ambiance,” explained Varley.

“For them [clients], they tell us, that is normally how they kick off their holiday season.

“It was super hard not to do that this year.”

This week, volunteers were out in force delivering the holiday hampers and boxes of toys to clients – stopping to have a chat when possible. Varley said volunteers put in more than 8000 hours to make the program a reality.

“This program is an example of the amazing spirit in our community,” she said.

“It really is a volunteer-run program and their big hearts have guided the impact we have in the community.”

Varley said she was extremely grateful for the support of volunteers and the generosity of this community this year.

“Their caring, love, and support of other people in the community is priceless,” she said.

Elisia Seeber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Shore News