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Cash-strapped Christmas cheer

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The team of Santa’s helpers at Redfern’s St Vincent de Paul Christmas Cave. PHOTO: Marilyn Rodrigues

A cost-of-living crisis won’t steal anyone’s Christmas cheer. Not if Donna Boyd can help it.

With her team of Santa’s helpers, the leader of a Society of aSt Vincent de Paul support centre based in Redfern transformed its garage space into Sydney’s biggest Christmas cave for cash-strapped parents and carers.

On weekdays throughout December people were welcome pick up a large red or green hand-sewn Santa sack for each child and do some “shopping” for free.

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The only rule? Choose whatever you like.

With donations from all over Sydney plus purchases from donated funds, Boyd’s team also sourced high-quality beauty products, chocolates and other luxuries for adults who deprive themselves all year to provide for their kids.

They could also pick up gift-wrapping paper, themed dinner plates, serviettes and bonbons and other finishing touches that bring smiles to a family Christmas meal.

“I just love Christmas. It’s a special time of giving and nobody should go without,” Boyd smiled.

“The beauty here is that rather than receiving a donation of gifts they can choose them for themselves.

“If we wrap up presents and give them to people, we don’t know what their children would like—they may have a five-year-old with the tastes of a 10-year-old or vice versa.

“I think what makes it for me is that I know people really need it, when I see that they are really touched by it that it makes all the extra work of putting this together worthwhile.”

Michelle Riley’s been doing it tough for a while and staying with her are her young nieces and granddaughter—ages 11, eight and five-year-old twins.

Now they’ll receive the dolls, games and craft supplies she knows they’ll love, while a Christmas food hamper “will go a long way” in her house.

“This is so amazing it makes me want to cry,” she said.

“There are things here that I could never afford to get for them and they don’t know they’re getting anything, so it’s going to be a big surprise on Christmas morning.

“Seriously, it’s so good that there are people who will do this.”

A severe heart condition and other health issues means the 53-year-old can only work three half-days a week at her job in a supermarket.

“This year I’m seeing a lot more people rush in and try to thieve food. It’s terrible, but I know they’re doing it hard and I understand because I’m doing it hard myself,” she said.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul reports an 18 per cent increase in people seeking its support this year, up to more than 87,000.

One in three people have sought assistance for the first time, compared to one in four people just a year ago.

Four out of five people did not have enough food to get by and close to half were facing housing stress.

Tom Story, president of the society’s Sydney region said more people than ever have been dreading the thought of Christmas spending on top of increased expenses.

“Particularly in the last six months there’s been greater demand for our resources,” he said.

“The biggest issue I see for people is paying their power bills.

“When people are poorer they don’t have energy-efficient appliances, and so often the trigger for seeking emergency assistance from us is that they’ve just paid their huge energy bill.

Vinnies Redfern team leader Donna Boyd. PHOTOS: MARILYN RODRIGUES

“That and medical expenses are what I’m seeing are most challenging.”

Lower North Shore parishioner Helen Walsh volunteers at the centre every Thursday and said her grandchildren would definitely approve of the range of gifts on offer including LEGO, Barbie and other brand-name products.

“I’ve always been really lucky but I think it’s important to do things for other people especially at Christmas,” she said.

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