Diane Robertson: We won't let tour rogue spoil everyone's big day

Turning away anyone at the door would run counter to spirit underlying the lunch

The Auckland City Mission lunch is the end product of much work by happy volunteers. Photo / Richard Robinson
The Auckland City Mission lunch is the end product of much work by happy volunteers. Photo / Richard Robinson

Leading up to our annual Christmas dinner, there was an air of excitement, preparation, and organised chaos afoot. It is sad that much of the media coverage has focused not on the thousands of people brought together to prepare and participate in the lunch and the opportunity to celebrate, but on one rogue tour operator who brought a group of 10 Chinese tourists to the event.

Christmas lunch at the City Mission is a larger version of an annual celebration held by thousands of families throughout the country. The preparation begins weeks before. Invitations are issued and families ring to say that they will be attending. Presents are wrapped and decorations are pulled out of the cupboards in preparation for the day.

Christmas morning brings the laughter from the kitchens, people catching up after a year apart, the decorators preparing the tables and entertainers rehearsing their songs. Volunteers sort aprons and plates and prepare to serve the meal.

Like all family gatherings, there is laughter, rivalry and fun accompanied by the occasional sharp word.

The arrival of the guests brings life to the party. There is a diverse group of cultures and ages, families and couples, single homeless people and groups from various community agencies. People who are disabled or elderly have been brought to the dinner by volunteers and given special attention at the table.

Noise levels rise as strangers share stories and families celebrate Christmas in a safe and caring environment.

The lunch is prepared by 550 volunteers who decorate, cook and serve the meal. The entertainment is provided by staff from the Auckland District Health Board and the clean-up by a crew from a local church. All of these people give up time with their families to make Christmas happen for the people who attend. There is as much joy in giving as receiving on the day.

The conversations with the people attending attest to the value of the lunch - women who are celebrating without family violence and mothers who talk of the joy of watching their children experience fun and laughter at Christmas. Elderly people express their pleasure about having company on this special day and many disabled people express their appreciation at our efforts to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs.

In the wake of ongoing comments about the rogue tourist operator, there have been continual calls for stricter control on dinner tickets to ensure such an incident does not recur. In the name of "genuine need", there have been cries for background checks, denial of people without tickets on the day, and other such preventative measures to ensure this does not happen again.

Most people came with tickets - they are clients of the mission's homeless services, drug and alcohol programme and emergency services. Community agencies send the names of individuals and families who are in need of physical or emotional support on Christmas day.

Some arrive without tickets - homeless people who have mislaid the ones they were issued or families who left them at home in the rush to catch the free bus to the event.

People with tickets are let into lunch first and so for those without tickets there is a long wait in what was, on Christmas day, inclement weather.

Had we turned away guests at the gates, we would have been portrayed as denying the truly deserving.

An organisation such as ours relies on the goodwill of our donors, our volunteers, and indeed our clients to conduct themselves honestly, openly, and with proper intent. The thousands of other guests that had called, queued and patiently waited to be able to come to Christmas lunch exhibited this.

Sadly, the actions of the tour operator has called into question the integrity of tour operators, the genuine need of some of the people attending the lunch and the need for the Mission to run such a large event.

It is distressing that this occurred, and even more saddening that this small group - less than 1 per cent of the attendees - have misused our organisation and marred a wonderful day that provides so much to people who have few opportunities to attend such occasions.

It is easy to criticise the people who come to the dinner, to judge their worthiness and their need. Most of us would choose not to attend the lunch. We would not choose to wait in the rain for a table or to eat off plastic plates at a table with plastic cloths. We would not choose to eat Christmas dinner with strangers, or be the recipients of charity. The people who do come to lunch do so because they are in physical or emotional need.

It would be wonderful to think that everyone had somewhere to go on Christmas day and not be dependent on the kindness of strangers. Then our work would not be needed.

Diane Robertson is the chief executive of Auckland City Mission.

- NZ Herald

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