Food and friendship were Christmas gifts from family to drought-stricken populace

A few weeks before Christmas 1993, Mark McNicol, a tall, sun-tanned agriculturalist earth-moving contractor and counselor in the branch presidency of the small Stanthorpe Branch, Ipswich Australia Stake, wondered how he could give some Christmas cheer to drought-stricken families in southwest Queensland.

He knew thousands were suffering severely from a drought, which over a four- to six-year period had dried up dams and gullies, sapped the nourishment from grasses, killed untold numbers of sheep and cattle, prevented the planting of grain crops and brought poverty and frightening debt across the vast outback of the state. Indeed, some farmers' children had never seen rain.Living in the Granite Belt, a major fruit producer for the state, Mark envisaged driving a large refrigerated van of delicious fruit and fresh vegetables to the hot and dry interior where such "rare" gifts would gladden many a heart.

Realizing the enormity of the task, he sought the assistance of his wife, Marijke, and family (the McNicols have eight children), extended family members, the small band of Church members in the branch, and the growers around Stanthorpe and the community. The response was inspiring. Tons of fruit and vegetables of every variety, cash, groceries, vehicle fuel, and essential cardboard cartons by the hundreds were donated and filled locally.

The Drought Funds Coordinating Committee, with brances in all drought-affected areas, supplied details of needs and locations of families.

As the food drive gained momentum and hundreds of needy families were identified, Mark and Marijke realized more helpers and food would be needed. They prayed for guidance and received confirmation to proceed with the humanitarian efforts. Through the efforts of Church leaders, all four stakes of the Brisbane Region joined in the project.

A massive organization of Church members in Brisbane and nearby cities supported the food drive. Full-time missionaries picked vegetables on a farm, sorted and packed cartons and helped at collection points. Public Affairs personnel obtained good publicity in seeking community donations. A team spirit pervaded the work of all volunteers.

Altogether, 40 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables, tinned food and other groceries, milk and fruit juices, breads, Christmas cakes, flour, jams, honey, condiments, children's clothes and toys (donated by children), books, cards and several thousand dollars were donated by members and the community.

All material was sorted at a warehouse in Brisbane by scores of volunteer members in extremely hot and humid conditions. Pallets for loading into the two 20-ton refrigerated vans were stacked with an equal variety of food and prepared for loading according to drop-off points along the western highways.

Christmas greetings and notes of cheer from the Church were attached to cartons. Collecting, transporting, unpacking, stacking, sorting, selecting, mixing, wrapping, packing, labelling and loading began at the warehouse at 8 a.m. and finished at midnight. The huge vans with their back-up vehicles following, including Mark, Marijke and their baby Sarah, all sleepy-eyed, left soon afterward heading for the western highways.

Mark and Marijke followed their van northwest along the Warrego Highway, arriving at Tara, 386 kilomters from Brisbane, at 5.30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. drop. Marijke remembers that whole day well.

"As we drove throughout the morning, the day got steadily hotter and reached temperatures up around 104 degrees along our trip of 725 kilomters to our last drop-off point at 6 p.m. Sarah, all of 20 months, was so good she never cried; Greg, 11, rode up with the truck driver for a good part of the way to help keep him awake." Five-hundred-seventy-one families received large cartons of food and other goods along the route.

The other refrigerated van driven by Mark's brother, Peter, serviced 479 families along the Cunningham, Barwon, Carnarvon and Balonne Highways as far as Cunnamulla, 1,039 kilometers from Brisbane.

At Bollon, 856 kilometers from Brisbane and main stop before Cunnamulla, a dawn rendezvous was kept with the pilot of a Cessna Crusader twin-engine aircraft from Goondiwindi, previously organized by Mark to deliver food cartons by air to sheep stations in very remote areas south and southwest of Bollon.

The aircraft was loaded directly from the refrigerated van on the tarmac for each trip throughout the morning. Graziers gratefully met the aircraft with their four-wheel-drive vehicles on their own station landing strips. Thirty-two families, inaccessible by large vehicles, were supplied quickly and safely by air.

At every place where goods were delivered, excited groups were gathered waiting for the vans. As the pallets were unloaded and their contents revealed, there were gasps, radiant faces and tears of gratitude. One recipient said she had never seen cabbage so fresh, while others hadn't seen such variety of the fruit and vegetables for years. All along the two routes, the lonely, the forgotten, the struggling and many beginning to wonder whether to carry on were cheered, encouraged and given hope to fight on by meeting people like the McNicols, who really cared. They were there in person with the food and friendly smiles.

For them and the 1,050 families in a dry land area of 75,000 square kilometers, as well as the hundreds who helped, it was a wonderful Christmas, one they would never forget.

And for Mark and Marijke, who gave countless hours, considerable effort, great financial assistance, and the sacrifice of long planned Christmas/New Year activities, they received a strengthening of faith and increased love of their Heavenly Father.

Yes, truly a Christmas to remember.

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