On the surface, the Christmas dinner looked no different to any number of yuletide festivities taking place across Melbourne. There were mums, wearing paper hats retrieved from crackers, sharing tales of the pre-Christmas rush, while kids ploughed through trifle and figgy pudding, keen to get back to playing with some of their new toys and assembling the others. Wrapping paper littered the floor, and the table was brim full of festive favourites; and after lunch everyone who could unbuttoned their pants and planted themselves on the sofa for a nap.
Yes, it was a scene that was replicated in homes across the city – except for the families in this story, this last Christmas was one of the few they can remember that was festive and not filled with fear and sadness, and it’s all thanks to people they have never met and will never be able to thank.
It all began when the Melbourne office of global property and construction consulting firm Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB) decided to make a financial donation to help families who would be spending Christmas in refuge. They invited Refuge Victoria’s Director of Services Trishia Barclay to speak to staff about the challenges facing parents and children fleeing family violence and the work Refuge Victoria does to support them.
So inspired were the RLB staff that several added to the donation from their own money, while many more went shopping, personally selecting and wrapping gifts. If only they could have seen the faces of the children opening their gifts on Christmas morning; if only they could have felt the deep gratitude of the mothers, finally able to see their children enjoy the Christmas they deserve.
Thomas* has spent all five years of his life in poverty. His family had an old, plastic tree his mum rescued from the nature strip one year, but there were never more than a couple of small toys beneath it. Fun Christmas dinners with family were also never experienced by Thomas, whose memories of Christmas included hiding in the cupboard hoping his violent father wouldn’t find him.
This year, Thomas received more gifts that he had ever known, including a Transformer, which he told us he had been dreaming about but never thought he’d ever own.
Thomas and his mum joined the other mothers and kids in the refuge for a Christmas dinner that one child told us looked like the Christmas feast in the film The Christmas Chronicles and tasted ‘amazing’. All the food, crackers and decorations were paid for by the generous RLB donation.
After dinner, Thomas played with nine-year old Mandy*, although she had to leave early to give her mum a facial. Some of the RLB staff had purchased items for the women in refuge, and the week before Christmas, refuge staff had arranged the gifts on a table they called a ‘shop’ and the children were able to browse the items and ‘buy’ something for their mums.
Mandy chose a strawberry-scented sheet mask for her mum. She’s too young to understand that the most precious gift her mum received was a couple of fun and carefree hours with her daughter.
Despite waking up to a stocking filled with toys and candy for the first time in her life, Tansi* says the best thing she got this Christmas was a smile from her mum when she opened her present. She told us it had been ‘forever’ since she had seen her mum happy.
The impact of the generosity of RLB staff will last well beyond when all the dishes were washed and the wrapping paper put into the recycling bin. For families whose normal included violence, humiliation and fear, participating in a Christmas celebration that was all about love and kindness reset the narrative. It gave children a happiness they have rarely experienced; it allowed mothers to enjoy a magical time with their kids without fear. And despite being told for sometimes many years that they are worthless and undeserving, the generous donations sent a new message: that they are loved and they are deserving.
On behalf of the women and children who enjoyed a Christmas they will never forget, thanks to the kindness of strangers, we would like to warmly thank our very generous friends at Rider Levett Bucknall.
*For safety and privacy reasons, Refuge Victoria has deidentified all the clients in this story.