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Our angels at Christmas

10 December 2019
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Throughout the year, thousands of volunteers quietly work behind the scenes caring for others and the community.  We tracked down to five people who help organisations bring a bit of extra Christmas sparkle to families this year.

Alana Waples understands what a simple gesture of food or a basket of goods can mean to a family trying to navigate grief.

She and her husband Andrew had just moved in 2013 to start as founding pastors of C3 Church Queenstown when tragedy struck.

Their daughter Violet, nearly three years old, wandered from the family’s home and tragically drowned in Lake Wakatipu.

It was a horrific time for the young family. But Alana remembers an “endless stream” of people dropping things off, including a roster of meals cooked three times a week for three months by parents at Remarkables Primary School.

“It was quite amazing. I think gifts without expectations are the ones that mean the most, especially when you are trying to manage and process your own grief, let alone walking with your children through the circumstances.

“So, when people dropped things off, there was an understanding you were cared for and you don’t need to say anything,” she says.

Seven years on, Alana (38) is on the board and one of many volunteers at Queenstown’s Baskets of Blessing.

“A lot of the people who are part of the organisation have been through something. There is a love and graciousness between us,” she says.

The organisation started when founder Tam Schurmann received a basket from a stranger when her mother was battling cancer. The South African later moved to Queenstown and began the project that sees about 500 baskets a year gifted to others, including during the Christmas period.

It starts with a confidential nomination from someone within the Queenstown community.

“It can be for a family going through a difficult time, someone who has lost a family member, a new parent – anything,” she says.

A basket or food box is put together from the donated items from the community and delivered to the recipient.

“It is a wonderful experience to gift something to someone, because they don’t know they are getting it. Often people are quite emotional and taken aback. There’s often a hug and a tear,” says Alana.

It is, says Alana, a gift of love when words aren’t enough.

***

She has kissed Bono, got the giggles while curtsying to the Queen, and been serenaded by singing superstars Willie Nelson and Brownie McGhee.

It’s fair to say Queenstown freelance photographer Sheena Haywood, 52, has enjoyed a very interesting life looking through her camera lens.

When Happiness House, a Queenstown support agency, puts together its annual Christmas boxes, it needs someone with a great personality and a good contact book. That’s where Sheena comes in.

She’s busy trying to coax her puppy, Valli, to come back into her Lower Shotover home, as she juggles the phone while explaining how she unwillingly locked lips with U2’s legendary frontman.

Sheena was 17 when she became the third woman photographer to be hired at the NZ Herald. She has a chuckle as she remembers.

“It was very male-orientated back then, but I taught them a trick or two,” she says.

She quickly made a name for herself and had a front-row seat for many historic moments, including when U2 played at Western Springs Stadium in 1989.

She was snapping away in the photo pit when she lost sight of Bono through her lens.

“I looked up and he was crawling across the stage, lunged and kissed me. And I was oh yuck, Bono kissed me!”

“He was very sweaty, so it was a bit sloppy,” she says with what sounds like a grimace.

That night, however, the kiss was beamed across the screens of the nation, and Sheena had to deal with the question “were you the girl...?”

Sheena didn’t fare much better when she met Queen Elizabeth II during the 1990 Commonwealth Games. Although there were no lips involved this time, she did have to practise curtsying. But Sheena got the giggles when the Queen approached her.

“I wanted to give her a hug. She reminded me of my nan. I didn’t do a very good curtsy because I was all giggly,” says Sheena.

With such a big personality, it is no surprise Sheena is so good at her volunteer role tapping businesses on the shoulder to ask them for donations for the Christmas box appeal.

“I just go and remind them of their community spirit to give back,” she says.

Sheena enjoys volunteering and says it probably harks back to when she was a little girl.

“It comes back to watching my grannie doing it [volunteering]. The joy it brings, the difference it makes – that call to service.

“I’ve had a profiled life in my work, and I think it’s kinda cool that you can operate behind the scenes and do some stuff that you don’t have to have your name attached to,” she says.

Happiness House manager Robyn Francis says Christmas is a “critical time” for some Queenstown families. The recipients of the 50–60 Christmas boxes are families and individuals who are struggling to make ends meet.

“Some of these families have been born and raised here, and this is what they know as home. But unless they have a high paying job – and there are not a lot of those – it is a real struggle for them. Buying those extra things at Christmastime is not an option,” she says.

The Christmas boxes are often received with tears, says Robyn.

“There is a bit of a mixture of embarrassment too, but they are so grateful that this is a community caring for people who need their support.”

Corey Sinteur, 55, business tutor and former university lecturer, also volunteers at Happiness House, and last week he was busy helping get the boxes down from storage. Robyn says he is the go-to man for the organisation.

Earlier this year, he helped raise $12,000 with the organisation’s annual Ski Sale – money crucial to keeping the lights on at Happiness House, so they can continue supporting the community.

He loves volunteering there because, like Robyn and Sheena, he knows Queenstown can be a “tough town” to live in.

“You grow and you learn from other people and appreciate other people’s situation. I grew up in a single-parent family in a state house. We had no money; everything was secondhand. But if I didn’t always have money, I could give time,” he says.

For Sheena, doing this work is not only fun but about “not being stuck in your own life”.

“What is the purpose in life? Is not the purpose in life for all of us to be having a good life? And some people are not having a good life all of the time and let’s just help them out a little bit.”

***

Marian Tredinnick is a firm believer in not dwelling on things, particularly when it has to do with Canterbury’s February 22, 2011 earthquake.

But it is the reason why the health and safety manager volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House South Island – a place families can stay while children undergo hospital treatment.

She and her colleagues at EPL, a manufacturing company in Christchurch, were thrown from their office chairs at 12.51pm at their Maces Road factory in Bromley when the earthquake hit. Marian also lost her home.

It was, says Marian, a bit of a rough time. But she chooses to remember the “kindness and generosity” of people delivering them lunches, and of their customers providing washing machines so Marian and her colleagues could do their washing.

And so when the last Portaloo was picked up from the old factory almost three years later and Marian got her house sorted, she wanted to give back that which she received.

“It made me think we were very fortunate that the rest of the country supported us as well as they did,” she says.

Marian, 59, joined what Ronald McDonald House chief executive Mandy Kennedy calls a band of “volunteer angels” about three years ago.

“That’s what they are. The gift of time they give us is so valuable,” says Mandy.

With 145 regular volunteers and 1600 others ready to help with events and appeals, about 18,000 hours of labour has been “gifted” to the house this year, she says.

“Without these gifts of time, we couldn’t serve the 1200-odd families every year that we do. They are critical to the success of the house,” she says.

Marian volunteers with EPL chief executive Mark Field at the house on Cashel Street once a month. One stays overnight, usually on a Saturday, while the other one pops down to lend them a hand for a few hours, mopping the floors and cleaning up the kitchen.

“They are like part of the family. When they are in doing their night shift, the families are in a really safe pair of hands. They have amazingly warm personalities just oozing with compassion, and they are really fun to be around,” says Mandy.

But this year Mark, 57, is taking on the mammoth task of cooking Christmas lunch for up to 26 families at the house.

Dry turkey won’t be on the menu though, he’s quick to reassure. He has a plan involving two Weber barbecues.

“Marian did one for her family last year the day before Christmas Day and it came out perfectly, so she rang me and told me how to do it. And it came out spectacularly good,” he says.

He feels in awe of the parents who are at the house.

“I just admire them. Time after time they cope and put on the positive face for the kids. Parenting is tough at the best of times, but man it must be so tough when all that is happening,” he says.

Normally Marian would volunteer to do the Christmas Day or Boxing Day overnight shift, as she has done in the past, but she is due to get ankle surgery.

But she says if she is “reasonably mobile” she might “hobble in” because, for her, the house is part of her “family”.

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