Everyone deserves a gift at Christmas time, but for many people this is the last thing on their minds. They’re living in the car, sleeping rough on the streets, or spending their last dollars feeding the kids. Never mind Christmas presents—the season has become about survival.
That’s where the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal comes in. As Australia’s largest and longest-running Christmas gift appeal, Kmart have partnered with The Salvation Army for the last 30 years to deliver presents to people doing it tough.
“The Appeal has grown significantly over the past 30 years and so too has the support of the local community,” Kmart managing director, Ian Bailey, told Only Melbourne.
The Wishing Tree concept began in 1987, when Adelaide Kmart employee Eve wanted to help people at Christmas time. As enthusiasm rose through management, it was decided that The Salvation Army was the ideal distributor of the gifts.
Their presence in cities across the country meant local corps (churches) could easily partner with their Kmart store, and thus began a journey involving hundreds of thousands of everyday Aussies, just like you, coming together to make Christmas Day special for everyone.
It’s hard to put actual figures around what the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal has achieved in the last three decades. This year, 195 Kmart stores are involved in the appeal. Some estimate about eight million gifts have been dispersed since it began, and last year alone the Salvos received 343,000 gifts, in addition to monetary donations.
The number of employees and volunteers involved in the Appeal is also difficult to quantify—how do you count the number of people involved in 30 years of hard work and goodwill across Australia?
“The people involved in it are so broad, from the Kmart Wishing Tree Champions to our volunteers who sort the gifts, to our corps officers [ministers] who then get them to the clients who come in,” says Salvation Army national secretary of communications Lieut-Colonel Neil Venables.
“We have to remember that right at the end of this are clients who really are in need, and Christmas time is such a difficult time for people. When you map it out, the whole chain of people involved in the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal, it’s really quite amazing.”
Major Peter Ellis is one Salvo officer who has seen the Wishing Tree Appeal in action. As an officer at a small country corps in Victoria, he helped distribute Wishing Tree presents to the community.
“We were able to bless these families with just what they needed for Christmas Day. The mums would come in just before school ended, and they would just be in tears—tears of relief and appreciation,” he said.
“Australia is one of the most generous nations on Earth, and the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal gives people with generous hearts and generous spirits and the ability financially to do so, to go into Kmart, purchase a gift, and put it under the tree, knowing that the Salvos can make very good use of it. They bless the Salvos, and it helps us to bless others.”
As much as the Appeal wouldn’t be possible without the time and energy of countless Salvo volunteers, Kmart’s role is equally vital. Following the example of Eve, each store is given a Wishing Tree Champion who pioneers their store’s efforts to provide for the community.
“We’re proud that the Appeal has become a longstanding Christmas tradition for many Aussies and we know that this generosity is felt long after the holiday season,” said Ian.
Given the complexity and detail involved in making the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal work, it’s amazingly simple for the public to contribute—and that’s why it’s so successful. Simply buy a gift and place it under the tree. From there, the local Salvos pick up the gifts (some as often as once a day!), sort them, display them, and then help clients select gifts for their families. It’s a long process, but one that changes people’s lives.
After 30 years, donating to the Appeal is an Aussie tradition, but it hasn’t come without its challenges. In previous years, volunteers spent precious time unwrapping gifts to avoid any unexpected surprises from reaching clients. Today, most people know they can just leave their gift, allowing the clients to lovingly wrap it themselves.
There’s also the occasional second-hand toy in the mix, and the challenge of buying gifts for teens. This is why the Salvos have begun encouraging the community to contribute a gift card or donate financially if they’re unsure about what to get.
Ultimately, though, the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal always comes down to the generosity of the Australian public. This is something the Salvos don’t take for granted—especially considering that they help three times the amount of people in December than during the rest of the year, due to increasing costs and stresses over the holiday season.
“Through our partnership with Kmart, and thanks to the generosity of Australians nationwide, we are able to provide gifts to those who would otherwise go without, not just at Christmas but at any time of the year,” Lieut-Colonel Venables explained to Melbourne Now.
“The Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal truly does give hope where it’s needed most.”
From the moment you leave a gift under the Wishing Tree, to Christmas morning when someone is able to unwrap the little piece of love themselves, we thank you for your support, Australia. We couldn’t do the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal without you. Thank you for bringing hope into countless people’s lives over the past three decades. Here’s to 30 more years.