“Prior to beginning my teaching career in 2008, when I was at university, I used to volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. I really enjoyed the opportunity to give back to my local community. Upon starting teaching full time, I was saddened I didn’t have as much time to volunteer, so tried to find ways I could incorporate volunteering into my life as a primary school teacher.
It was around this time I discovered Mini Vinnies groups, a way for primary school children in Australia to work within their community (I teach in the Catholic school system). In 2008, there were no Mini Vinnies groups in Victoria, so I was making things up as I went along in the early days! It was a case of ‘fake it til you make it!’ I soon had a gaggle of inspirational 8 to 11 year olds who enthusiastically went along with any volunteering opportunities I suggested and were keen to come up with their own suggestions.
Since 2008, I have run a Mini Vinnies group at my school each year. I usually have about 40 students involved who willingly give up their lunch times once a week to think of ways to help out in their local community. We usually visit the local nursing home, bringing cards, sharing photos and, at Christmas, singing carols. During the winter, we create hampers of our local community through the ‘Vinnies Winter Appeal’ and at Christmas time, create Christmas hampers for local families. If you work with a big group, I encourage you to give the distribution of hampers a go—it really is maximum effect from minimal effort!
A few weeks before the collection of the hampers, the Mini Vinnies brainstorm items they feel should be included in the hampers and have in depth discussions about which foods would be most appropriate! The kids, Grade 3 to Grade 6, take this part of their job very seriously. Each class is then given a list of the suggested foods and each student is asked to bring one item in each. At Christmas, we include more ‘treat’ foods and Christmas items, such as bon bons, plum pudding, fruit cake and Christmas décor.
I am so privileged to teach in an extremely generous community, where many families donate double or triple the amount of items requested, as well as new toys which can be given out, along with the hampers. We usually end up with at least 13 hampers per event (at least 26 a year), which can be given to families in need.
Our hamper packing event also occurs during a lunch break and is a flurry of excitable students weaving glittering tinsel around washing baskets stacked with food. These kids have become experts in ensuring that our hampers look appealing and wrap them with great care. As our finished hampers grow, I never fail to tear up a little. It’s so beautiful to see young children feel pride in helping others. I’m often quite touched by the same student’s speeches when they graduate primary school and they mention how being a part of ‘Mini Vinnies’ is one of their favourite primary school memories because they felt empowered by making difference in the lives of others.
Obviously, COVID-19 has provided extra challenges this year. We have been in two hard lockdowns, with the second being a Stage 4 lockdown lasting 112 days. Since beginning our school year in February, we participated in about 17 weeks of remote learning and upon our return to on site learning in October, students have not been able to gather in large groups for extra-curricular activities. Thankfully, we are now able to resume most of our usual activities (with less than 2 weeks of the school year to go), just in time for Christmas hamper making!
I am so excited to once again be in the midst of rushing kids, as they are dragging rolls of cellophane and arguing about whether the Tim Tams or the Favourites should feature as the hero of their hampers! We’ll have Christmas music blaring and I will feel a tiny glow of hope these bright-eyed kids will continue to think about simple ways to make an impact in the lives of those around them, even after they finish school.
I am always struck by the excitement and joy my students receive from making these hampers. They work so collaboratively together when creating them and the room buzzes with excitement as they decorate and wrap them. Over several years, I will always have one child who will take charge of ensuring the hampers ‘look professional.’ Often these are children who may lack confidence in other areas of school life but feel like they completely know what they are doing when it comes to wrapping hampers!
At the end of every wrapping session, I always make sure I thank the kids for their hard work and reiterate to them that because of their dedication and the generosity of our community, stating, ‘When you wake up and open your presents on Christmas morning or sit down to eat with your family, take a moment to remember that you and your community have made a difference to another child just like yourself. Another family will have a special Christmas because of your actions.’
I always have to hold back my tears when I look around the room and think about the difference these students are making now and will make in the future.
One of my proudest moments was during Grade 6 Graduation, when I was watching each student’s video at the graduation ceremony a few years ago. Luckily the hall was dark as we all watched the video messages together, as I was in floods of tears! Time and time again, students said, ‘The thing I will remember most was being part of the Mini Vinnies group and making hampers for everyone at Christmas. I really felt like I made a difference.’
I am so privileged to have found a profession I love and have never considered doing anything else. It is a gift to be able to meet so many children, connect with their families and watch them grow. It’s so lovely when students, who I taught when they were tiny 5 years old, contact me as young adults to reconnect and ask me if I’m still running Mini Vinnies. It really makes all those lunch time meetings worthwhile!
Throughout this year, I felt so sorry for my students who weren’t able to participate in their usual lunchtime groups and would ask me weekly, ‘When is Mini Vinnies starting?’ It’s a credit to them they were still constantly thinking of others during such a challenging year.
Although COVID-19 added challenges this year, I am thrilled we were still able to create 23 hampers and provide lots of new toys to those in our area, thanks to the generosity of our school community.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Laura Jeffreys from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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