Wesley dishes out Christmas cheer

Matthew McDonnell finds the festive season one of the toughest times of the year.

When most families are sitting around a tree unwrapping thoughtful gifts, the West Wollongong man usually spends Christmas morning shedding a few quiet tears over the now 12-year-old son he hasn't seen for eight years.

Mr McDonnell has battled drug addiction, poverty and ongoing family problems during the past decade.

This year he started piecing his life back together enough to send his son - who lives on the Central Coast - a Christmas card with a return phone number inside.

"In the past my family had a lot of verbal fights, I know a lot of it was my fault, and my son is with a proper family now. But now I'm ready to make amends," he said.

He said he couldn't have done so without help from the Wesley Community Care Centre.

In a return of goodwill, Mr McDonnell this year joined about 40 other volunteers to peel potatoes, pile up plates of food and dish out a hearty Christmas meal for others in need at Wesley Uniting Church's annual lunch.

"It's been really hard for the past few years, but now I'm really glad to be here to help," Mr McDonnell said.

"There's a lot of of people in my shoes, who you can talk to and spend time with and who might just be sitting at home feeling miserable otherwise."

Wesley Community Care coordinator Karen Zaini said numbers for the Christmas event continued to grow each year, which she attributed to rising food and electricity costs along with a lack of jobs in the Illawarra.

"We get people coming here year after year, because it's a great atmosphere, they get a good meal and they get to share stories with all kinds of different people," Ms Zaini said.

Among more than 300 people who shared yesterday's meal over long, festive tables, a visiting Chinese family keen for company on the quiet Australian public holiday broke bread with regulars like 84-year-old Max McLeod.

"I come here every year because I like being with all these people and the atmosphere is so bright," Mr McLeod said.

"I have no family to share Christmas with, but that's ok because this is my family, and my church is my family."

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