Christmas Lunches Around Australia Bring Holiday Joy To Homeless, Poor And Lonely

24/12/2015 6:52 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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As families gather around the tree on Christmas morning, unwrapping presents and preparing to tuck into a big lunch at home, legions of people around the country will be willingly giving up those magical moments.

While many of us take a nice Christmas for granted, for others around Australia, December 25 is not so rosy. The homeless, the poor, the disadvantaged and the lonely often struggle through the festive season, financially and psychologically. As we rip into piles of gifts or gorge on mountains of food, many are not so fortunate.

That's why, when they would normally be at home with loved ones, countless hundreds or thousands of people across Australia volunteer to bring Christmas joy to others through free community lunches for the needy members of our society. Here are four of them.

Exodus Foundation, Sydney

The lunch at Ashfield can lay a claim to being one of the biggest in the country, with up to 3000 people expected at the free celebration this year.

"We started 30-odd years ago," said Reverend Bill Crews, CEO and founder of the Exodus Foundation.

"I came to Ashfield as a minister, we had 10 old ladies there and I was talking to them about Christmas. One of them gave me a plate of sandwiches and I sat in the church hall on Christmas 1986. Two people turned up and we had something to eat. The next year we had 13 people come."

From humble beginnings, the Exodus Foundation's Christmas lunch swelled to 400 after starting their famous Loaves and Fishes free restaurant, then to around 2000 people in 2014, with a platoon of 400 volunteers helping bring the lunch to life.

On Christmas Day we will feed almost 3,000 poor and homeless Sydney-siders, but we need your support. Please donate today. http://www.exodusfoundation.org.au/donate

Posted by The Exodus Foundation on Thursday, 3 December 2015

"Everyone has a free, hot traditional lunch with all the trimmings. We bring in the homeless, people from boarding houses; it's a great big party," Crews told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Everyone has lunch, Santa turns up, everyone gets a present. It's wonderful."

Crews said guests come from as far as Bathurst, Gosford and Liverpool.

"It's also good for the volunteers. For lots of people today, Christmas is a nightmare. Maybe their marriage has busted up or their partner has died. These people often end up as volunteers, people who are really lost and lonely," he said.

"One group of volunteers are coming, a family whose daughter died in a car crash at 17. She had a bucket list and one of the things was to feed someone a really good Christmas lunch. The family are coming to do the desserts in her memory. You get a lot of people like that."

Wellington Square Park, East Perth

As big as Exodus' lunch is, Perth's Christmas Lunch In the Park (CLIP) says their event is even bigger. The Mission Australia lunch fed 3000 people in 2014, and state director Amanda Hunt said the decline of the mining boom-led WA economy will see that number far swell this year.

"Every year it's been getting bigger and bigger. We’re expecting it to be exponentially larger this year, we've opened the event up to anybody who wants to be part of something special at Christmas -- not just people experiencing homelessness or people who are isolated and lonely," she told HuffPost Australia.

The CLIP lunch is in its 40th year, making it among the longest-running Christmas community lunches in the country. Hunt said a staggering 600 volunteers are on board this year, with applications for helpers forced to close as early as November due to demand.

"So many people have offered to give up their day. They'll be table hosts, sitting at a table with 10 other people and starting conversations, making people feel special and valued," she said.

"We'll be putting on a lovely meal of turkey and ham. The Perth community has been very generous, donating thousands of gifts which we've spent the last few weeks collecting and wrapping."

A huge tent in Wellington Square Park, an area often populated by rough sleepers during the warmer months, will be the centre of a day's worth of entertainment including face painters, football games, stilt walkers, orchestra bands, a choir and a petting zoo. Hunt said a local photographic company had volunteered to take family portraits on the day.

"We do have quite a large homeless population in Perth. Because of the decline in the mining industry in Western Australia in particular, a lot of people who were not expecting to be financially vulnerable haven't had a chance to prepare for Christmas," she said.

Malvern Town Hall, Melbourne

2015 marks the 42nd year of the free community lunch held at Malvern town hall. It bills itself as "Melbourne's biggest free Christmas Day Lunch," serving up a hot three-course meal to the homeless, the poor, those with mental or physical disability, the elderly and the lonely.

"We joined on about five years ago to take on the organisation of the lunch, as it was getting so large," Elliot Cartledge, event manager for Prahran Mission, told HuffPost Australia.

"It was a natural fit for our clients who were already attending in great numbers. It is about a community coming together, providing the spirit of Christmas and a celebration for those who wouldn't otherwise have that opportunity."

Up to 450 people are expected at this year's lunch, organised by Prahran Mission and the City of Stonnington, which will serve up three courses of food to its guests who will all leave with a gift.

"It's very much a festive occasion, we don't take any notice of people’s backgrounds. Once they're in, it's a celebratory event," Cartledge said.

"The guests get an opportunity to celebrate with others, that's the key element. Otherwise, they would be on their own or without the means to celebrate properly."

Carollers, an organist and other entertainers offer up their time to delight the guests, part of the the small army of volunteers Cartledge singles out for praise.

"There's 50 volunteers. We need all the help we can get. We typically have about 90 per cent of our volunteers who come back every year -- they queue up to volunteer," he said.

"They are mums and dads, brothers and sisters. We’ve got six from the same family this year. They come back time and again."

The lunch at Malvern town hall is already full to capacity, with Cartledge saying they could not accommodate any more guests.

Arts Centre Melbourne

Staying in Melbourne, one of the city's most popular entertainment venues will throw its doors open to the community on Christmas for its first ever community lunch.

James Ostroburski, governor of the Arts Centre Melbourne Foundation and co-chair of the project, told HuffPost Australia the centre was inspired by stories of Melbourne businessman and philanthropist Sidney Myer, who hosted a lunch for 10,000 of the city's poor in 1930.

"We wanted to do something meaningful on Christmas. We were inspired by Sidney Myer who, during the darkest days of the depression, opened the doors of the Royal Exhibition Centre to help Victorians struggling with poverty and homelessness," Ostroburski said.

"We're going to feed 1500 people. There has been such a great response and momentum to the project. We’ve raised $100k to undertake the project, a mix of large and major gifts and also from crowd funding."

He said the centre would put on a two-course spread and dessert, with entertainment from a local chamber orchestra. A crew of 80 volunteers, as well as 50 centre staff, will help stage the operation.

"It's about a plentiful feast, to give some joy and cheer. I spent some time last year looking at the numbers on homelessness and poverty around the country; there are so many things we take for granted," Ostroburski said.

"We wanted to take on the project to support the community on a very special day where we thought we could do something meaningful, and communicate the importance of giving and sharing in the community."

"We’ve been humbled by the support."

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