The spirit of Christmas all year-round

Meet our natural born givers

Written by Leanne Esposito

If nature has made you a giver, your hands are born open and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full. A little something borrowed from Novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of classics, The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

It’s an insightful statement on why some people naturally give.

These days our lives are so busy, we’re caught on that treadmill of life, and for many of us Christmas is the only time we stop to think and make time for giving.

Let’s think of Christmas as the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. Let’s also turn our minds to the very unique individuals who are those natural born givers, and who thrive in a constant state of giving. They are most happy when they see joy in people by forgetting the self and finding time for others. In a 2022 paper by psychology student, Rebecca Matthews titled To Give or Not to Give, the author described giving as prosocial behaviour. She went on to explore the positive health benefits of giving. Apparently, givers stress less and are consistently happy.

Fortuitously we have many happy, healthy givers right here in Hervey Bay at the local Neighbourhood Centre and they’re gearing up for the best Christmas lunch money can’t buy. You see in the spirit of Christmas giving its free. Funded from its inception by the Hervey Bay RSL, this year’s Community Christmas Day Lunch will be better than ever.

During the past 15 years the popular event has changed names from Picnic in the Gardens and Picnic in the Park, depending on its location. This year it’s called the Hervey Bay RSL Community Christmas Day Lunch and the Hervey Bay Neighbourhood Centre’s enormous dining room is the venue. Air-conditioned, undercover and free from Covid restrictions, the tables with be adorned with Christmas tinsel, tassels, baubles and bells, and everyone will be treated to an abundance of food which will be served by the wonderful volunteers who are those natural born givers.

Comfort Kitchen’s Toni Halley was handed the Christmas Lunch baton a couple of years ago by Janet Newman, the original organiser. Toni the natural born giver is a long-term volunteer with the Wednesday Comfort Kitchen which serves a free weekly community meal. She tells us how it all started.

“I worked with Janet Newman down at Urangan with Christmas in the Park. I used to help her do the prep and help on Christmas Day until 11am. I basically knew what to do. Janet gave me the head up about the quantities.

“When she decided (to finish) she just said Toni will help you. When Tanya Stevenson (HBNC CEO) asked would I do it, I didn’t think long. I said Okay,” said Toni.

The old saying, if you want a job done, ask a busy person still rings true today.

There’s certainly something to that off the cuff statement by past American President Benjamin Franklin. After all, the busier we are, it seems, the better we manage our time. Busy people are able to get more done in a day because they don’t waste time. And that’s why highlighting Toni’s past life gives some context to why she’s up for the task. Toni, who is now retired, is a woman who can do everything and anything.

Throughout her career with Harper Collins Publishing Toni was constantly on the go. Living at Beachmere she was midway between Brisbane and Sunshine Coast airports. As a Sales Representative she had her own territory which included Bundaberg but would fly to and from Sydney airport once a month. It was a high high-flying life where she met celebrities like Ricky Pointing, Steve Waugh and Masterchef’s Pho Ling Yeow who presented Toni with an achievement award. Toni always went beyond her budgets (KPIs) and was recognised as Sales Rep of the year four times, with two of those twice in a row.

“During that time I would have four books on the go and read them. I would need to know what I was selling. I got the gift of doing the children’s reading.

“QBD was my largest account. I would go to the Brisbane Airports and merchandise. I worked at BCF and did the prepackaging for the big schools,” Toni said.

She challenges me to think about how big a task that would have been which underscores just how much she can easily tackle in a workday.

“Try packing St Margaret’s school for grades 1 to 12. I had a huge budget with Harper Collins. It didn’t worry me. And I don’t stress,” she said.

She naturally transitioned to a career as a Real Estate Agent at Beachmere selling property but after two years, she and her partner Stephen Lockwood decided they liked the idea of living in Hervey Bay close to friends. Originally from Tasmania it seems the weather in Queensland is what she craves.

“I arrived in Queensland in 1971 and we were going to go back to Tasmania when I retired but I couldn’t survive the cold,” she said.

Fortunately, friends and the connections she made in Hervey Bay were the key. Naturally she found her way back to the book business and beyond to volunteering.

“I knew Cate Akaveka when she had Books by the Sea in Hervey Bay and now I help Cate with catering events at the Neighbourhood Centre.

”Originally, I volunteered at Meals on Wheels and then my hairdresser asked if I’d heard of Comfort Kitchen.

“Pre-Covid Wayne Martin ran it and I was his offsider. Covid came along and shut us down. We would do takeaways weekly, just me and Stephen. Now we’re back to eighty people every Wednesday,” Toni said.

After many years in operation, Comfort Kitchen is a smooth operation and Toni tells me they never run out of food. There are no bookings. Anyone can turn up and enjoy some great food and company. A great big welcome from the six to ten volunteers who regularly turn up, along with nutritious hearty meals is what participants receive.

Toni tells me there is a monthly turnaround with the menu with some amazing dishes like, chicken and sweet corn soup, bangers and mash, cottage pie with fresh carrots and beans, corned meat with white sauce and vegies, and for dessert hot pudding or fruit salad, ice cream and syrup and popping candy, which is an all-time favourite. Toni is proud to be a part of a great team of volunteers’ and wants us to know that it’s real hospitality at its best!

“Comfort Kitchen is not a soup kitchen. We have three people in the kitchen serving and three or four taking the meals out. It’s a real restaurant meal,” she said.

Toni acknowledges that she asked for a little help during 2022 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery. She is thankful that Andrew Stagg stepped up to the plates and now they continue to run the kitchen on a fortnightly rotation.

“Comfort Kitchen is staggered. The doors open at 4.30pm, they come and have a drink and everyone is fed around five. We leave the doors open and the diners arrive at different times. We have professionals who volunteer and come in after their workday. Some are happy to just do dishes.

“It sounds like a lot of work but we have it down pat. We have some of the best volunteers and Kuni and Linda turn up every week and just chatter away together while doing their work,” she said.

Toni is a true battler who always thinks of others before herself and cancer for her was a bump on life’s which road she navigated with the assistance of her surgeon Dr Emilia Dauway and the amazing McGrath Foundation Breast Cancer nurse Megan Lynch.

Toni tells me they are all looking forward to Christmas, especially now the Covid restrictions of having three separate sittings is over. The opportunity to all join together in shared companionship over a sumptuous Christmas lunch is a welcome relief. In Toni’s first year the Hervey Bay Neighbourhood Centre catered for 110 and this year they are hoping for more, around 130.

“There will be Christmas carols playing on the big screen. It’s a smorgasbord with ham, chicken, smoked salmon and assorted cold cuts. We have salads of coleslaw, pasta and pesto salad. Then on the tables we will have nibbles and cheese platters.

“Of course there will be Christmas cake and custard. The community is very generous and often donate gifts,” she said.

After speaking with Toni it’s fairly evident that the best gift possible is kindness. It is possibly the greatest gift you can bestow upon another. To give to someone in need, and to lend them a helping hand may be more beneficial to you than you know. Don’t wait for a thank you. True kindness lies within the act of giving without expectation of something in return. It’s certainly what Toni and her volunteers do weekly with big hearts and smiles to match – no thanks necessary.

So, if you have some time and want to not only feel good but feel really good, get on down to the Hervey Bay Neighbourhood Centre, I guarantee you’ll be welcomed with open arms.