Real Life

Real life: Single mum's Christmas miracle

The Take 5 elves bring Christmas cheer to the Sweeney family after a house fire destroyed everything they owned.

By Brittany Smith

Nicole Sweeney, 38, shares her true life story:

Wrapping paper littered the floor as my kids tore into the presents.
"A mountain bike!" Jay, 12, exclaimed. "Thanks Mum."
I looked over at Charlotte, 13, who was fawning over her new make-up and clothes.
"Merry Christmas, you two," I said.
I'd been a single mum for 10 years and just making ends meet was tough, but Christmas was my favourite time of year and I never wanted my kids to go without so I scrimped and saved so I could give them a few treats to unwrap.
For eight years I'd worked long hours at my local garden centre, but the pay was barely enough. I wanted the skills to earn more so, after Christmas, I enrolled in horticultural course at TAFE.
Juggling a job, study and being a single mum was exhausting, but my kids were angels.
We lived in an old house which had been converted into six dingy flats and even though my kids had grown up there, it was a tight squeeze.
Nicole with her two kids, Charlotte and Jay.
Driving home after Jay's footy one day, I tried to stifle a yawn - I'd had the flu and felt wiped out by the time we got home.
"I just need to lie down for a bit before doing dinner," I told the kids as I laid on the couch.
Groggy and disoriented, I woke to hear Jay screaming.
"Fire!" he shouted.
Heart pounding, I saw wisps of orange licking the top of the glass outside - Jay and Charlotte's eyes were wide with terror.
I grabbed my handbag and car keys and rushed them out as thick, black smoke clouded the common hallway. The wall and door of the flat next door were singed black and smoking.
Neighbours were scrambling down the stairs, but I couldn't see everyone. Had our older residents made it out?
"Everyone, fire!" I boomed, hoping they'd hear me. Luckily a few did and ran for safety.
The kids and I ran towards our car but, halfway there, I stopped - the pets!
"Keep going," I told Charlotte and Jay before turning back. I couldn't bear it if our rabbit, Mr Moustache, and cockatiel, Sunny, burnt alive. I quickly grabbed them, the heat of the flames scorching my cheeks.
The flames quickly took hold and soon our home was gone.
The house was surrounded by bush and the fire was spreading fast. I drove us to the road and then dialled triple 0, the kids were hysterical.
Thankfully, a fire engine arrived within minutes. Holding the kids close, I thought of all the cherished family photos we'd lost - my dad had died years before and every photo I had of him was inside.
I hadn't been able to afford insurance, so we'd lost everything we owned. With nowhere to go, we drove to my ex's parents' house where we stayed in the spare room.
"Everyone got out," my neighbour Rob said on the phone and I exhaled in relief.
He explained the fire had started because one of the tenants had left his fireplace burning while he was out. My brother, James, took us under his wing and we squished together in his spare bedroom.
Friends and family kindly donated clothes but I couldn't see how we'd survive. Would we be homeless? How could I keep my kids warm and safe?
Charlotte and Jay were so good, not complaining once.
A month later, James and his wife had another baby, and I knew we had to get out of their hair. My ex's parents offered us their spare bedroom.
It was cramped, but I couldn't afford rent on a part time wage. Christmas was coming and it broke my heart I wouldn't even be able to buy second-hand toys from Vinnies.
Then I got a phone call.
"Is that Nicole?" A woman's voice asked.
"This is Brittany from Take 5. We've read about what you've been through and thought your family deserved some treats."
At first I thought it must be a prank, but it wasn't!
Nicole was brought to tears watching her kids open their presents.
I couldn't believe it when all sorts of beautifully wrapped gifts arrived! After such an appalling year, it lifted all our spirits.
Seeing the kids open their presents made me realise we would get through this.
Charlotte was stoked when she saw the make-up kits she'd been given with an array of lipsticks that will be perfect for her dance concerts. Take 5 even gave her salon-style hair care products from Price Attack, plus a beautifully Well Box full of natural goodies like detox teas.
Jay couldn't believe it when he received two fishing rods, plus reels, from Gladiator tackle. Tears pricked at my eyes when he unwrapped a PlayStation console, the new PS4.
Jay loves breakfast so when he saw a Kellogg's brekkie pack he couldn't wait to dig in. I was so happy watching them, I didn't even think about my presents.
But Take 5 kindly bought me an amazing DSLR camera from Canon so I could make new memories.
Charlotte told Take 5: I lost all my make-up in the fire and I haven't been able to buy any for dancing. I can't wait to play around with it. I might even practise on Jay...
Jay said: My fishing rods are light but they're so strong I could catch a 6kg fish! My mouth dropped wide open when I opened the PS4. They were the best presents ever.
I was so overwhelmed but then the gifts kept coming and Brittany handed me an OPPO A57 smartphone, and a luxurious camel milk skincare products.
For the past few months our family had sweated away in the spare bedroom so I couldn't stop the tears when I saw a Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link Purifier. I always thought Chrisco only sold Christmas hampers, but Brittany had arranged for us to receive a new desktop computer!
"This is the biggest Christmas we've ever had!" Jay exclaimed. We each gave Brittany a big hug when she left, still shocked by the amount we'd been given.
I'm not sure how we're going to rebuild our lives but Take 5 gave us a Christmas miracle and that's given me hope again.
The Sweeney family with Brittany from Take 5.

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