A simple idea to help those in need

Look, I know it’s early to be thinking about Christmas – it’s only October. But it’s never too early to be thinking about food insecurity – and particularly as the cost of living continues to tear holes in people’s pockets.

Foodbank is reporting an increase of 15 per cent in requests for help since the Reserve Bank of Australia started lifting interest rates in May. They also said that around half the people coming in haven’t had to access food relief before.

So while many of us may tut-tut at stores for putting up Christmas decorations and merchandise so early, there are groups of people across Australia who are gearing up to help vulnerable people enjoy the festivities of Christmas.

One such is Heather Luttrell in Ballarat, in Victoria, who has been organising what she calls Reverse Advent Calendars (RAC) since 2012. It’s essentially an empty box wrapped in Christmas paper into which you put one item of food for each of the 20 days leading up to Christmas. This is then dropped off at a charity for distribution to vulnerable families on Christmas Eve.

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Jacinda and Jacob Luttrell with Reverse Advent Calendar boxes in the back of the car ready for delivery in 2018

The project has grown from a family affair back when Heather’s three children were in primary school to a point where 6,000 boxes are on order this year for sending out to 37 groups across the country.

“When my children were primary school age, I loved the idea of just showing them that there was more to Christmas than looking through the toy catalogues and doing their own advent calendars – which we still do to this day,” Heather explains.

“I’m not anti-them. I just wanted to add another element to it and it amazed me how quickly it became their favourite daily tradition leading up to Christmas. They would roster themselves on, and if somebody put a box of cereal in and then another one would be, ‘Well, tomorrow I’ll have to put some milk in because they can’t have cereal without milk.’”

One year, the family was disappointed when they went to drop off their hamper at a local food place on Christmas Eve but arrived too late and had to bring it back home.

“The kids and myself were just really disappointed that, after putting together this hamper, it was not going to be with anyone Christmas morning.”

A tower of boxes wrapped/decorated/labelled ready to deliver to Heather’s friends in 2018

Heather’s sister, who volunteers at an agency working with people with food insecurity, said she knew a needy family and could leave it at their doorstep that night.

“So she did that and it just really impacted me, particularly to think that on Christmas morning, this family – it wasn’t going to change the world, but it would bring a little bit of joy, a little bit of, ‘somebody has done this for me.’”

Over the years, while many visitors admired their Reverse Advent Calendars, nobody else took up the idea, but Heather could see the power of it in her own family.

“So one year on Facebook I said, ‘If I wrapped a box, delivered it to you, collected it back from you, did all that sort of the hard work, who would like to join us?’ – hoping to get four families involved, and the response was incredible. And we ended up with over 70 boxes. And that was a lot of boxes that I was collecting from Bunnings or wherever I could get them and wrapping them.

“I loved doing it, but it was like, ‘Well, I can’t do that every year.’ At the same time, I’d been praying that God would give me a project. It took me a long time to match these. It’s obvious now, but I’d been praying that God would give me a project I could lead.

“I still don’t know why that was important to me, but I didn’t want it to be something I was coming into. I wanted something that I developed, but something that would involve families, kindness and generosity. And I specifically said those three words into whatever would come of it.”

“[I wanted] something that would involve families, kindness and generosity.” – Heather Luttrell

Heather then got a call from a friend at church telling her that someone had been led by God to give her some money to pass on to Heather.

“Look, my husband owns a big vet clinic and I was working full time as a teacher, so I knew it wasn’t God saying, ‘This is to buy your groceries, pay a bill.’ Then I still remember the exact spot I was walking when it hit me. God was saying, ‘This project, you can grow it. This is money that you could use to get boxes made.’”

Heather didn’t know how to begin, but she called on a friend’s husband, a designer, who offered to sponsor the project and design with a logo and a box design.

“We had to think of a box that suited the needs of people filling it, but also suited those receiving it, so it needed not to be patronising to the recipient, that they would feel it was a gift of worth and love, not making them feel like a project. So he came up with this amazing box, but then didn’t want to receive payment for it. So then I was like, well, the money can go towards getting the boxes printed.’”

A current example of a box with donated items

In 2019, when Heather launched the Reverse Calendar Project in Ballarat, she had to buy a minimum of 500 boxes, which seemed ridiculous, but she thought she’d be able to store the leftovers for future years.

“I think the simplicity of it, there was something about it that people just understood and it grew. We ended up that year having to order another 500 and then another 500 – 1,500 boxes ended up being taken by people and filled and returned to us. The majority were filled by community members with no affiliation to the church.

“And it’s become this most amazing tradition, a yearly event at my church, [York Street Church of Christ]; particularly among the younger people – the youth love to come and help on this day when the boxes come back,” she says.

“We are quite a big church, but to have so many people from the community that have nothing to do with the church, no faith, they’re walking in wanting to hear about our church. They see our gorgeous indoor playground and they’re seeing things playing on screens and just meeting people and being welcomed and it’s a gorgeous day.”

Volunteers hard at work sorting the boxes ready to be handed on to food relief agencies

After quality control checks to remove any “wonky things,” the boxes are sent to a variety of agencies, who then pass them on to people in need.

“And so that happened just for one year in Ballarat, and then other places started contacting me, wanting to know about it. And so we grew to 12, I think, the next year across Victoria. That was the first year of the pandemic. So we were like, ‘Well, we may not get much response because it had been such a tough year.’ But if anything, it made people more generous that, if you were able to give, people wanted to give. So it grew and that year I think we did 2000 boxes, and then last year we had 4000 boxes with 36 groups across Australia.”

The explosive growth in 2021 came about largely thanks to a BBC video about the project and a recommendation by Mia Freedman on a MamaMia podcast.

“But anyone can do this. People don’t have to be Christians to get involved. I love it when somebody contacts me and wants to coordinate a group and they are from a church because I know their heart will be the same as mine. Having said that, it doesn’t mean somebody from another town doesn’t have the same passion for giving as I do.”

This year, the scale of the project has grown again. Thanks to sponsorship from a local business, Heather has been able to buy her boxes early, and get stronger, better quality boxes with handles on the side.

“We’ve ordered 6000 and we have 37 groups, just one more than last year. So we’re growing again. I even have a lady in NSW in Sydney who’s doing a trial run. She’s not a Christian, but she’s completely on board with this. She really felt that the boxes were too big for the agency she gave them to because people were on foot and they couldn’t carry the boxes away, so she wanted to see if we could make a smaller one. I’ve worked with her and she has fully funded the artwork, the postage to NSW for an extra 500 boxes. They’re a little less than half the size and we are calling them our Twelve Days of Giving boxes.

“So instead of fitting 20 items, they’re sized to fit 12, so it’ll just be that bit smaller for somebody to be able to carry more easily. And I have a feeling that next year, we’ll be able to offer both to people, and I actually think the smaller box will really take off.”

Young girls check out the tower of boxes

Heather is thankful and amazed that this non-Christian woman is happy to pay for artwork that includes a Bible verse and a manger scene rather than a Santa. The Bible verse on the box is Luke 2: 10-12: “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'”

As the RAC project gains momentum, Heather recently heard from a coordinator in Tasmania who has received an offer from Tassal, the salmon company, to pay for the postage on her 200 boxes.

“I just want to encourage people to find ways to give at Christmas time. In every town, people are coming up with creative ways to help people with food insecurity. So first and foremost, find something, but if people are interested, while we’ve got boxes left, we’re happy to have more people contact us to coordinate.

“The minimum would be just 20 boxes. And that’s $20 for 20 boxes plus the postage, which is about another $20.

“So if people want to coordinate, get in touch through our website or Facebook. Families are the key group because parents have the same feeling I did when I began that you want your kids to love Christmas and enjoy receiving, but you also want to remind them they’re pretty lucky and what can we do to help?”

“We’re actually going to invite the families to the church and the people will receive them straight from us.” – Heather Luttrell

As for Heather’s kids, now aged 20, 19 and 15, while they rolled their eyes a bit when their high school adopted the project each year, they are proud. The two eldest, who are at uni in Melbourne, are looking forward to coming home to help with box day on December 18 “because it’s the highlight of their Christmas.”

“We’re also planning a big blessing day for the first time, which instead of the agencies taking the boxes away to distribute, we’re actually going to invite the families to the church and the people will receive them straight from us and we’ll have a sausage sizzle and fairy floss and just something free to bring some joy and fun to them,” says Heather.

“It’s a bit cute that my beautiful mum, who’s 80 and lives in Bacchus Marsh, coordinates a group. She’s just ordered 180 boxes for this year and she and dad will work so hard and carry these boxes that are way too heavy for them. But she gets joy from doing it.

“A co-ordinator recently said that one of the reasons she chose to get involved was ‘To give others a way of constructively helping families less fortunate at a time of the year when love and hope does as much for the giver as the receiver.’ I think this sums it up so beautifully.”