Melbourne News

Christmas volunteers: St Mary’s house of welcome

Friday 20 December 2019

Communications Office 

The Big Give is a Christmas lunch for over 300 people experiencing chronic homelessness and disadvantage on Christmas Day, held at the Fitzroy Town Hall. Its one aim? That no Australian be alone on Christmas Day.
‘We have a choir singing, and everyone gets a small gift,’ says CEO of St Mary’s House of Welcome, Robina Bradley. ‘There’s a traditional roast Christmas Lunch with all the trimmings, entertainment throughout the day, dessert, topped off with a visit from Santa.’
Now in its 16th year, this Christmas lunch is organised by St Mary’s House of Welcome in Fitzroy, run by the Daughters of Charity, where a rough sleeper can go to receive a meal, a haircut, shower, emergency relief support and access to a network of services available to the homeless community.
Each year, organisers of the lunch receive such a groundswell of support from people wanting to volunteer on Christmas day, in the past they’ve had to turn volunteers away if they don’t register on time.
As it stands, the Big Give has 125 volunteers on Christmas day and up to another 100 volunteers to help throughout December.
So what is it about this particular event that ignites this desire to help other people?
‘It’s a very practical expression of what we do, offering support and hope. I think volunteers love that we all sit in the same place on the day,’ says Robina. ‘For both the regular guests and volunteers, there’s a real sense of community and joy. Most volunteers don’t like the inequity of some have and some have not on Christmas.’
Most of the guests are existing clients of St Mary’s House of Welcome; vulnerable people who are dealing with hardships related to chronic homelessness.
‘For Christmas day, our clients know they’re valued, and they know that there’s a community that supports them and thinks about them,’ Robina says.
The Daughters of Charity have operated St Mary’s House of Welcome for 60 years, and for that time it has been a constant place of welcome and hope in Melbourne. They host this event with minimal press and promotion, and yet it still attracts the interest of politicians, community leaders, sponsorships from big brands, and most importantly, huge numbers of volunteers.
In the simply decorated town hall, volunteers organise games, and operate popcorn and fairy floss machines. Each guest receives a food hamper and a Coles Myer voucher.
For Robina, it’s not difficult to secure interest amongst volunteers for the festive occasion. ‘People want to give and want to do good. It draws people away from the commercialism of Christmas and highlights that sense of the real meaning of Christmas.’
‘As a Christian—and working for a faith-based organisation—this is about us demonstrating why we’re still here after 60 years helping people who are vulnerable and disadvantaged, and why that’s so important. It’s not hard to hook people’s interest at all.’
Which is fortunate, given that hosting a Christmas lunch for 300 people wouldn’t be possible without volunteers, Robina stresses. 
‘We actually oversubscribed with volunteers this year. Telling people they can’t volunteer is really hard so we’re trying to break people into teams and fit more people in. If people really want to be there and be part of it, we can find a way.’
Not all volunteers on the day serve tables, Robina explains, with some donating the hiring of a truck, and managing ticketing. ‘Our volunteers aren’t just there for the Big Give; we have volunteers packing hampers, and corporate groups come in and donating their time throughout December. The local Catholic schools like Siena College, St Kevin’s and Xavier have been very supportive, donating time and fundraising.’
The Big Give is an opportunity to share goodwill, lend a hand and give a smile to those in need. Volunteer registrations are closed for 2019, but if you want to help St Mary’s House of Welcome, they would appreciate any support and donations. ‘Everything we get, we give. Give a gift card, it’ll go into a Christmas hamper. Donate basic necessities like jocks and socks.’
If you want to help your local homeless community, Robina says, ‘if you see someone on the street, introduce yourself. Offer to buy a coffee or a sandwich. Then get involved in local parishes or agencies and find ways to contribute.’
For more information on St Mary’s House of Welcome, visit    
If you would like to donate to the Big Give, click here.  
The Big Give is a ticketed event. If you would like to help in 2020, please email from 1 October 2020.
For a list of meal services for people experiencing homelessness on Christmas, visit:
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