Thu, Dec 23, 2021 11:40 AM

Our Christmas angels

Shane Hamilton is preparing for his favourite time of year as Father Christmas. Photo: Tess Jaine.

Guest

Nelson is blessed with thousands of volunteers helping groups throughout the year, but as it’s Christmas, Adrienne Matthews tracked down three people who give up their time to make the festive season a little more special for local families.

It takes a special kind of person to be a Father Christmas. They have had to commit weeks to intense training at the Father Christmas, Reindeer and Elf Training University at the North Pole. While there they work hard to graduate in subjects as diverse as: How to keep their legs crossed (because there is no time to go to the bathroom when there is a long queue of children ahead), how to turn a screaming child into a laughing one, how to navigate scrolls of health and safety requirements for all concerned including reindeer and how to survive in temperatures that would make a camel in the desert question his very existence.

There is nothing comfortable about being Father Christmas but the rewards far exceed the difficulties as local man Shane Hamilton can testify. Shane is a firm believer that “children need to have an imagination and never lose the ability to be a child.”

Ten years ago his wife was involved in a playgroup that needed a Father Christmas for the end of year party. I thought about it and realised that I definitely had the build for it,” he says. Kitted out in a Santa suit he was ready to roll. “It was a complete revelation,” he says. “The smile on the children’s faces when they saw me was completely magical and intoxicating. It is something you never ever get tired of. There is so much gloom and doom about, especially during these Covid times and it is wonderful if you can bring a smile and some Christmas joy for a few moments that will make memories for years.”

When Shane embarked on his Father Christmas career his youngest son wasn’t even born. As he grew up it was a bit hard to explain why I was dressing up in the big red suit. I just explained to him that Father Christmas was so busy at the North Pole that he needed helpers everywhere else to help him out.”

"The smile on the children’s faces when they saw me was completely magical and intoxicating."

One of the common questions children ask is ‘are you really Father Christmas?’ “I carefully explain that in the hearts and minds of girls and boys all around the world Father Christmas is very real indeed.”

“Many children tell me that they want a new puppy,” he says. “I have to explain about the disaster that happened a few years back in my Christmas workshop. Myself and the elves tried really hard to make a dog but it didn’t go too well and ended up half dog, half cat - a CatDog. After that we decided to stick to toys. Live things are just too hard to make in this part of the world.”

As a minister in a local church mainly working with children and a busy night job at Nelson Hospital, Shane has his hands full but nothing gives him more pleasure than seeing the joy on a child’s face when they see his big red suit with beard and beaming smile. “I am always ready to step up when needed,” he says.

Vicki Spiers has spent the past six years helping cater the Church on the Hill’s Christmas Day lunch. Here she is pictured with her son Karlin. Photo: Tess Jaine
Vicki Spiers has spent the past six years helping cater the Church on the Hill’s Christmas Day lunch. Here she is pictured with her son Karlin. Photo: Tess Jaine

The last thing Vicki Spiers wants to be thought of is as a Christmas Angel. A no-nonsense, practical go-getter she is used to making good things happen for others. She can’t escape the fact however that over the last five years she has been a driving force in creating a Christmas lunch for up to two hundred people that has “blown their socks off.”

Shane Hamilton is preparing for his favourite time of year as Father Christmas. 16December 2021Six years ago she and son Karlin learnt about the annual Richmond Community Christmas lunch and asked if they could help. Somewhere along the way she let slip to one of the organisers, Michaela Ross, that she had a background in catering. Michaela quickly realised her latest volunteer had both the skills and a heart of gold to be a great asset to the event and in quick fashion put her in charge of catering for the following year, a job she hasn’t been able to escape from since.

Organising the annual event is a substantial undertaking. Before Vicki became involved, most of the produce required was purchased. “I wasn’t happy with that,” says Vicki. “I knew that with my connections I could procure most of what we needed in donations.” She went to work and in no time a network of around thirty suppliers was on board. “People actually love to help and we simply couldn’t do it without all the wonderful businesses and donors that contribute,” she says.

The fresh goods are all provided locally. There are three local vegetable growers who contribute; berries come from berry farms and apples from a local orchard. With a passion for the environment, she will even hitch to Motueka and Riwaka to personally collect a hefty back pack of kiwifruit. Local supermarkets provide the dry goods and cream, ice-cream, milk, potato chips and coffee all arrive from local producers. “The only thing we spend money on is meat because we can’t expect local suppliers to provide that much for free,” she explains.

Each year unexpected things happen. In the last few years salmon has arrived along with boxes of mince pies. “The look on people’s faces when they see what they are getting is priceless,” she says.  “One elderly lady was in tears because she thought she would be getting sausages and bread. I am absolutely determined that this be the best Christmas lunch we can do. Karen Hoddy has been in charge of the decorations for many years which add a special touch. I love to see the end result of everyone’s hard work and seeing people blown away by the specialness of the meal and the camaraderie.”

It is uncertain quite what format this year’s Christmas dinner will take thanks to Covid. The organising team is planning on doing takeaway meals if people are unable to sit down so no matter what happens there is sure to be plenty of Christmas cheer still administered by Vicki and her fellow Christmas angels.

"The look on people’s faces when they see what they are getting is priceless."

Tickets to the event are free and available in early December from Age Concern, the Richmond Mall Information Centre and the office at Holy Trinity Church.

Manager of Milestone Homes Nelson, Adam Hills, has found himself an unlikely ‘Christmas angel’ but is relishing the difference the company he works for can make to so many families in the Nelson region at Christmas time.

After settling in Nelson in 2005 and realising he could combine his sales skills with his passion for the building industry, he took a job at Milestone Homes and hasn’t looked back. “I was their first employee and they haven’t been able to get rid of me yet,” he laughs.

Just as well as he is now the driving force behind the annual ‘Milestone Homes Make a Difference Appeal’. A previous staff member instigated the idea which has gone from small beginnings to a major event.

“I don’t think many people realise the amount of unseen poverty that exists in our region,” says Adam. “Christmas is particularly tough and Covid has made it tougher. For many families it can only take one thing to go wrong such as a fridge needing repair and the children won’t get Christmas presents. Bad luck and bad circumstances just happen to people from all walks of life and that makes me want to be part of something that can give a real tangible boost to a family and make their Christmas better than it would have been otherwise.”

Adam refuses to take much credit for his role in the annual event. “There are so many people who work hard to bring it all to fruition, including our Milestone staff who run the administration side and the Fifeshire Foundation who distribute the gifts,” he says. “I am just so grateful that this company has the means to do this and the connections to inspire others to contribute. Through all the years of working here and building houses I have met so many people who do fantastic work in the community – nurses, social workers, teachers and so on. It is from developing friendships with them that I have become aware of the needs in this community and that fires me up every year to keep pushing harder to do more for others.”

Mid-November each year the process begins with Adam and his family setting up the Milestone Homes Christmas Appeal tree in the Richmond Mall. “We are so grateful that the Mall is behind the event and provide the same space each year by Pak ‘n Save for our tree and where we can put up a screen to explain the simple process people need to follow to donate. We get so many positive comments from people to whom this has become a regular part of their Christmas giving. It gives us all such a buzz,” he says. “It is extraordinarily humbling to see how the local community has taken this simple idea on board, making it a tradition. It has even become a model that other regions have emulated.”

Adam is excited to be gearing up for another big haul of gifts to go to families that will have a much happier Christmas as a result.