Battling hard times with friendly help

Battling hard times with friendly help
Melanie Dooner

Melanie Dooner

Melanie has worked as a teacher in Catholic secondary schools and now works as a writer and editor

Stories are central to our family. With two children aged five and eight, stories told during dinner are how we learn about our children’s friends. They are also how we find out about the endlessly exciting, humorous and imaginary events that unfold in their classrooms and on the playground.

Their teachers would be truly amazed at how many places they took our children to if they were privy to the version of events our children tell us. It makes for great dinner time entertainment. But as we continue to journey through life experiences it is the sharing of our real-life stories that can truly impact the people we love and the families we care for.

Our friends Debra and Phil Bourke recently came over for dinner and card games when the lockdown restrictions in NSW eased enough to have people other than close family into our home. As usual, our night was filled with stories that made us laugh, cry and learn more about each other.

This night though, the stories were about the struggles with their family business, the sadness around letting staff go and the adjustments they needed to make to keep their business open. They talked about the impact of the death of Debra’s father at the very start of the COVID-19 lockdown following a long illness, and what it was like being told that they had to tell all but immediate family that they couldn’t attend the funeral.

Owning a frames and trusses company in the Macarthur Region of NSW, the reality of coronavirus hit them hard again when they realised they would be ineligible to receive the government’s JobKeeper allowance. This was due to a downturn in profit which the building industry experienced in 2019. This bad news, coupled with the cash bonus they were eligible for being deposited into the wrong bank account, put Debra, as the business accountant, under enormous stress. She was also grappling with holding onto as many of their employees as possible, and the business.

Of all the stories Debra told, most heartwarming were the stories of beautiful friendships that sustained her in the most difficult times. She particularly reflected on a time a few months ago when the stress was mounting. “I was getting really upset,” Debra said. “I’ve always been a hard worker and not jealous. I’d always look at others and how hard they work and commend them on that, but during COVID for the first time in my life I started to get jealous about the situation.”

Debra, who was feeling down, shared her feelings over lunch with friend and fellow business owner, Marina Mikulic. “I can’t remember exactly what Marina said,” Debra recalls, “but it was basically that she’s resilient and that she has to keep finding a way through because she can’t change the situation.

“But she decided she just had to get on top of it, work out what she could do and move on. I walked away from that lunch and haven’t been the same since. So now for the first time in 29 years, I’m literally putting on the work boots and I’m working on the factory floor because I can’t afford to put anyone else on. I am now part of the solution.”

Debra met Marina when she began shopping at Marina’s women’s fashion boutique in the main street of Camden. Marina’s friendly nature and desire to treat her customers like friends meant she and Debra have developed a lasting friendship that has grown over the past 17 years.

In “normal” pre-COVID times, Marina’s business is one of a number in Camden that support local charities, fundraisers and community events year-round. So, it’s no wonder that at a time of great need in the community, Marina’s solution to her own business difficulties resulted in her keeping her focus on connecting personally with the women who shop with her.

She converted her shopfront-only store into an online store on Facebook and continued day and night to check in on how her friends and customers were coping and supplying only enough products that would keep her business afloat and were relevant to women at that time. The deep friendship and love these women have for each other revealed itself in the most practical of actions. Debra joked with Phil that she was a “one-woman stimulus package” for Marina’s business during lockdown.

But their support of each other didn’t stop there. Debra and Marina have a mutual friend, Sarah Von Wartburg, who they met through their respective businesses. Sarah’s shop-front only café and catering company in Camden had to quickly change overnight to an online-friendly and delivery food business.

The impact of lockdown on them was huge and the catering side of the business took a massive hit with the cancellation or postponement of all catering events and weddings until 2021. “We have had to let go of many great staff and re-design our cafe fit out to make it COVID safe,” Sarah said. But she talked with optimism about how the adjustments they made in shifting to a ready-made higher quality take away and delivery service have helped them navigate through the worst of the situation.

In a sign of support for Sarah, Debra puts in a regular order for nine people each week and Marina often orders food from the café as well. Sarah is incredibly grateful to the local businesses and regular customers who were, and continue to be, supportive of their café.

Before our dinner and cards’ evening with Debra and Phil was over, our conversation turned to discussing whether they’re grateful for anything out of the time of lockdown. Not surprisingly, friendship and gratitude for the tight knit community in which they live in Camden was top of their list. The enjoyable time they spent with their two 20-something year old boys was also a wonderful blessing.

For Debra especially, the seven weeks of isolation following her father’s death meant she could take the time she needed to grieve in private and be a constant presence and support to her mother as she faced a new life without her husband. This is time she could never have hoped or planned to have in any ordinary circumstance and was of great value in a difficult period personally.

While times are incredibly hard for so many people and families as we face COVID-19, we hope and pray in the midst of all that is happening, that people experience and witness the love of God in the simple and often hidden treasures that are stories shared with each other as we travel along this road together.

The book Manage the Mess of Family Stress is available from the Majellan Bookshop for $21.95. See page 48.

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