The best part of managing a Salvos Store is making Christmas special for those who need it most, Liona Keneally tells Naomi Singlehurst.
As the woman with two children accepted the Christmas hamper and toys, tears flowed freely. Having just escaped a domestic violence situation, she and the children owned little more than the clothes on their backs.
Manager of Salvos Stores Wynnum in Moreton Bay, Brisbane, Liona Keneally says: ‘For those children to go through that terrible trauma at Christmas time was heartbreaking; but then for them to know their friends were getting presents and they might get nothing, added further to their pain.
‘So it was really wonderful that we could at least provide some beautiful toys and some really nice food for their Christmas.
‘The mum was so grateful, but she was incredibly embarrassed—almost ashamed; but we told her “That’s what it’s all about. This is the place that you come for help.”
‘And,’ says Liona, ‘I had been in a similar situation; so could tell her I completely understood where she was coming from.’
As manager of the store for the past eight years, Liona says her life has been incredibly enriched by helping others. Having once owned her own accountancy practice, and then working for a major university, Liona was materially secure. Then her marriage broke down and a series of circumstances left her almost destitute.
‘I went from having a Myer loyalty card, to hardly being able to afford to buy clothes in an op shop,’ she explains. Not knowing how to find help, Liona struggled on her own for years.
Eventually, after building a friendship with the manager of another Salvos Store, Liona became a volunteer, but was soon asked to apply to manage the Wynnum store.
‘I found I loved the job,’ she says. ‘It gave me (and our team) the opportunity to reach out to people, even on a small level. At Salvos Stores we are not just salespeople, we interact and talk to people on different levels. You get to know about your customers, their families. Some people come in every day and they just love that human touch and care they get, which they might not get anywhere else.’
So just before last Christmas, when Liona heard that demand for Christmas food was stretching the team at the local Wynnum Salvos corps (church), which was organising a ‘Christmas Cheer’ program, Liona and her team decided they would try to make up an extra 30 hampers, plus toys.
That’s where Liona’s local community Christmas miracle began. As she was putting a sign in the store window to ask for donations, local businessman David* just happened to be walking by. Seeing the notice, he stuck his head in to ask what was needed; and when she explained, he said to Liona ‘Well, let’s go shopping’.
Liona laughs as she tells the story, saying: ‘I was really cautious, thinking I didn’t want to be too greedy. But he grabbed two trolleys at the supermarket that we filled and he paid for. It was amazing. I was just overwhelmed. And I couldn’t believe it. We had a lot of food. Really lovely, quality food.’
The simple little acts of human kindness touch you and give you hope in knowing there are a lot of beautiful people out there in the community. That love and kindness makes us all richer.
~ Liona Keneally
David went on to help sponsor a Salvos community Christmas event that enabled even more funds to go on ‘Christmas Cheer’ for those in need.
As Liona and two others arrived back at the store and were still unpacking the food, a group of people from another large local business walked in with boxes of beautiful toys.
‘I thanked them over and over for their generosity and kindness to brighten some children’s lives for Christmas,’
‘I was honestly gobsmacked. I was quite blown away by what happened that morning. And after that the community just kept giving us more and more.’
Able to make up the hampers and more, Liona says the donations kept rolling in, even after Christmas.
‘Sometimes we will get someone coming in straight after Christmas who is in real need—which we did,’ she says. ‘Just after Christmas, a lady with three children, who had also been through a tough situation, came in. She was in tears as she had no money for food and we had that extra food and gave her two big bags full. She was just crying and thanking us and the kids were going through the food—you could see they were hungry.’
And so, Liona says, the generosity of her community made Christmas not only truly special for others in need, but for herself and her staff who were privileged to help distribute it.
‘You hear stories of tragedies and sadness over Christmas, but on the other side you have these people who come out of the blue and give generously to help others. It makes a huge difference not only to the people who receive it, who have desperate need, but to people like myself and others who witness it,’ she says.
‘I think I got as much out of it as anybody. It was so very lovely to be able to make Christmas a little more special for people who were genuinely struggling. I still remember the huge impact those little bits of kindness meant for me in the hard times.
‘I now feel incredibly grateful and humbled to have this job and be able to help do that for others.
‘What a privilege!’
*First name only used for privacy