SPREADING Christmas spirit has been a struggle for community organisations overwhelmed with vulnerable people in desperate need of help.
Each year, volunteer groups like Southlakes Incorporated, Survivor's R Us and Soul Hub become a beacon of hope for Hunter families, handing out hampers and hot meals which for some are the only gifts they'll receive this Christmas.
But the cost-of-living crisis has only seen demand worsen, with growing waiting lists for assistance weighing heavily on the minds of people like not-for-profit Southlakes Incorporated founder Christine Mastello.
Just eight days after they opened for registrations, there were 580 names taken down for Christmas hampers and a list of 720 children needing toys.
"I'm seeing families that are still working, mum and dad are both still working, and they need help," she said.
"A gentleman on a disability pension we're helping had his rent go up to $500 a week, he didn't come to pick up his emergency hamper and ended up in hospital because of lack of food.
"I've got a mum-of-three with no car, no family to help her and of those kids two have autism and another has Down syndrome and she's struggling for money.
"There's just story after story, people aren't coping and there's no future - you don't see a future for these people which is so hard in the community sector because that's why we do it, to give them a leg up."
This year the organisation hopes to hand out 900 hampers and 1000 brand new toys for children.
For the first time ever, Lake Macquarie's Ms Mastello has received calls for help from Newcastle as other community groups are forced to close their books.
It takes a team of 35 volunteers to keep the Central Coast and Lake Macquarie fed each week, and 90 per cent of those volunteers started out as Ms Mastello's customers.
Now she has two walk-in food shops in Cooranbong and Lake Munmorah and offers home delivery once a week from Fennells Bay to Wyong and out to Gwandalan.
Ms Mastello said there are a lot of factors that are contributing to widespread suffering for low-income families and people on Centrelink benefits.
"Each year the demand is worse, where do I start?" she said.
"You go to Woolworths, Coles or Aldi and look at how much food is, we get the five packs of noodles and I was working out how much to put them on our shelf for, at Coles they were $11.
"How does any family spend that?"
It's a similar story at Cardiff's Survivor's R Us, a not-for-profit charity that supports survivors of domestic violence, homelessness and unemployment.
Volunteers had brought in 400 hampers and by the end of the first day of registrations they had 400 names signed up and another 800 on their waiting list, founder Maria Martin said.
"They're just gone, and that's all we can afford to buy being in a self-funded organisation, it just makes it really difficult," she said.
"We had people from Muswellbrook and Scone putting their names down for hampers, that's really disturbing that there aren't the facilities around.
"People are really stressed, they're crying, it's really sad.
"To me, Christmas is supposed to be happy and jolly and for these people it's not, they're so worried they can't even have Christmas and I don't know what we can do to make it better.
"All of us guys are trying to put a smile on their faces but we're being pulled from one end to another."
Last year Survivor's R Us was supposed to do 400 hampers and ended up making 1400, as well as handing out 1900 toys.
Their FoodBank hampers are filled with the staples, canned ham, Christmas cake, fruit mince pies, jellies, custard and bons bons - and they're hoping the public might be able to help by making donations.
"We've seen a lot of new, working class families that are just struggling, and they're worried they can't put food on the table on Christmas day," Ms Martin said.
"People pay their bills, mortgage and utilities and they have nothing left to eat, so they come into services like ours to get them through to the next pay day or until they can next come in.
"It's really dire straits out there."
Ms Martin said the organisation has even had to dip into their everyday funds for bills to keep things going.
According to March Quarter 2023 Australian Bureau of Statistics Consumer Price Index data, the price of dairy products had risen by 14.9 per cent in the last 12 months.
Bread and cereals came a close second with an 11.8 per cent hike and food products generally rose by 11.3 per cent.
Just this month, borrowers were stung with another interest rate hike - the 25 basis point increase to the official cash rate to 4.35 per cent marking the 13th in the Reserve Bank's fight against inflation.
At Newcastle's Soul Hub, general manager Matt Ortiger saw a 52 per cent increase in their total meals served in October compared to the same month last year.
The organisation also delivered its highest number of laundry and pantry services this year.
"Our goal would be that one day we don't even exist, because there aren't vulnerable people in need, but at the moment there are and the number of people in need is going up," he said.
"Just to observe vulnerable people going through tough times and suffering and not being able to access what they need is a miserable thing.
"On one hand we're glad we're there and we can help as many as we can, but on the other our ideal is that we don't need people to be here and people don't need to come back to places like Soul."
As someone who deals with a lot of guests who either don't have a home or are sleeping rough, many of whom struggle with drug addiction or mental illness, Mr Ortiger said it's not just practical help that people need around Christmas.
It's community - and he hopes to help bring a smile to the faces of people who are often alone during the holidays with their yearly Christmas party.
"For a lot of people, who for all sorts of reasons are estranged from family or friends, that loneliness is heightened around Christmas, so we want to provide that sense of community," Mr Ortiger said.
"We know our Christmas party is the only gathering that a lot of our guests will go to, they're not invited to family Christmas or other things so we make it a big deal.
"We want to be practical, but we also want to provide that sense of belonging and for them to know that someone cares this Christmas."
Each of these three organisations, as well as others across the Hunter, are desperate for help to make Christmas even more special for people in need.
Locals are encouraged to check the websites of these organisations for their Christmas donation 'wish lists', sign up to volunteer or make a financial contribution.
Southlakes Incorporated Christmas Wish List
Soul Hub individual 'Hampers of Hope' Christmas Wish List (available for download on the website)
Survivor's R Us Christmas Wish List
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