Fresh out of high school, Vivian Ly has revealed the one thing that sustained her through year 12 and even gave her a one-up over other students.
Helping the homeless turned an overwhelmed Ms Ly – who thought her final-year exams were the be all and end all – into a happier and less stressed 18-year-old who saw life beyond textbooks and school marks.
Joining charity Christmas on the Streets (COTS) most Sundays gave Ms Ly an “avenue of relief” so much so that the Melbourne teenager gave up her family Christmas this year to spend it with the city’s homeless.
“Knowing that I’m doing something else that’s going beyond numbers and percentages just did the most for me,” she said.
Ms Ly wasn’t alone in her quest to lend a charitable hand on Christmas Day.
She, along with other young Australians, spent December 25 at Melbourne’s Batman Park, where more than 150 homeless men and women from across the state came together for a celebration.
The barbecue was lit and “over 150 backpacks full of gifts” were handed out to “our friends on the streets”, COTS founder Roseanne Rofaeel said.
The 23-year-old university student, who is studying psychological science at the Australian Catholic University, considers them family.
Melbourne’s homeless shared in more than 400 sausages, 200 burgers, 200 chicken wings, hundreds of drinks, as well as salads, cakes and muffins.
Christmas can trigger traumatic and distressing memories for many homeless people, Ms Rofaeel said. Being forced to spend it alone would have only worsened their mental health.
“To counteract it, we wanted to bring joyful memories of love to this day,” she said.
“This is the real meaning of Christmas. Christ, who was born on Christmas, was homeless too.”
Many COTS volunteers could relate to having a painful memory associated with Christmas.
They included people who have lost loved ones and found it hard to celebrate a “normal” Christmas at home and others who have never celebrated Christmas and just wanted to take part in something that would make them feel good.
Like those experiencing homelessness, volunteer John Saad knows the feelings of loss and abandonment all too well.
“It really hits home for me,” he said.
Mr Saad was right by the side of homeless people this Christmas.
“No one goes homeless unless they don’t have a family to come home to and friends to fall back on,” he said.
Also volunteering her time was 21-year-old Zianeb Ramaden.
“It just makes you feel better about yourself,” Ms Ramaden said.
“From the first glance, you can see the impact you’re making beyond a day-to-day conversation at work or at university.”
Ms Ramaden said she had never spent a Christmas offering up her time like this but wanted to give it a go.
“Perhaps that could contribute more to that feeling of impact and purpose,” she said.
While it all “sounds a bit unusual”, Nohara Koresh, 24, said homeless people “really need it the most”.
“If we’re not there with them, who else will be? And most of them don’t have a family, so we’re happy to be there and be their family,” Ms Koresh said.
Volunteer George Jhebrial, 17, couldn’t agree more. At the end of the day, he said, it just feels good to socialise with people.
In the past, it has given him greater confidence and helped him believe in himself more.
“Humbling yourself to go talk to someone that’s less fortunate than you feels like a blessing,” Mr Jhebrial said.
That’s what Mr Jhebrial was taught by his father, who migrated to Australia from a very poor area in Egypt and started his business from scratch.
“With my parents and with the people that we see in the city here, it just shows you how much you can appreciate your life and what your family’s given you and what society has given to you,” he said.