20 December 2023

Many faces of kindness in Goulburn fill Christmas void

| John Thistleton
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group of people at lunch celebration

Volunteers at the Wesley Centre Op Shop enjoying their end-of-year celebrations. An influx of volunteers will host lunch for anyone in need of company on Christmas Day at the Wesley Centre. Photo: Jan Lawton.

Seeing people on their own one Christmas Day in Belmore Park, Goulburn, became too much for Marcia Sullivan.

“I would hate to think anyone would miss out on Christmas,” she said.

With help from fellow parishioners at the Uniting Church, she organised a Christmas lunch at the Wesley Centre for people who did not want to be alone on Christmas Day.

“We got more out of it than the people who came,” she said, reflecting on that first dinner about 2005.

Born and raised in Goulburn, Marcia is one of six children, all of whom were taken from her mother, an unmarried woman, except the eldest daughter.

“I was adopted by Les and Noelene Dillon,” she said. “They gave me the name Marcelina. Dad christened me after a nursing sister at St John of God Hospital.”

In high school, Marcia’s eldest sister, the only one raised by their biological mother, revealed her identity to her. But Marcia never met her mother.

Now 78, Marcia has spent her life helping others through the church and working for op shops.

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Since starting the Christmas lunch, she has left Goulburn and now lives at Bomaderry, but the tradition at the Wesley Centre continues. This Christmas, up to 100 people are expected for lunch.

Predominantly strangers, they will sit down and enjoy slices of cold ham and turkey breast, salads and roast potatoes. Sweets will follow, comprising plum pudding, fruit salad, trifle, ice cream and custard. And all the trimmings, including bonbons.

“We make sure everyone is well and truly replete by the time they have left,” the dinner’s organiser for about the last decade, Jan Lawton, said.

“A lot of people like to give a donation. So we find that the donations usually cover whatever we spend. Some people are very generous, it often covers people who can’t afford to put anything in.

”We don’t expect anything, so if people can’t afford to put anything in, they don’t.”

After the Uniting Church’s Christmas morning service, preparations begin about 9:30 am, when trestle tables in the two halls are assembled.

“We have more volunteers come in on Christmas Day than you can poke a stick at,” Jan said. “It is amazing.

“People like to come, they like to be part of something that is helping other people.

“Other people will just turn up. They’ll walk in and see all these people that have come to help with the Christmas lunch.”

Making salads, setting the table and cleaning up afterwards means there are plenty of jobs to go around.

“I have a lady who volunteered her children to help set the tables and she is there to supervise that because she wants them to experience what it is like to help other people,” she said.

It was a joyous experience, Jan said. Before COVID-19 restrictions, the Wesley Centre catered for between 100 and 120 people, and those numbers are now beginning to return.

“One lady has been coming for years and years,” Jan said. “She is on her own. People come if they have lost a partner during the year and are all of a sudden on their own.

”They really feel it when Christmas comes around and they’ve got no family in Goulburn. It is a very hard time for them.”

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As people come in the door and take a seat about 12:30 pm, helpers find a seat alongside them and conversations begin.

Offering companionship drives the community groups operating from the Wesley Centre.

Jan and her husband, Noel, help run a cafe in conjunction with the centre’s op shop, and serve soup and sandwiches in winter and quiche and sandwiches in summer, homemade slices, tea and coffee. Noel makes jam-and-cream puffed-pastry matchsticks, which are popular.

Nearby, the Goulburn Community Garden on the church grounds gives them produce during winter, and sometimes leftover seedlings for the op shop’s open days.

No matter what time of the year it is, and most especially on Christmas Day, loneliness is left at the door at the Wesley Centre in Goulburn.

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