Steve Neff is a big bloke with a big laugh.
He is the sort of bloke who would shout g’day across a street if he saw you, scattering birds and dark clouds with a smile and a wave.
So it is no wonder he has played Santa for 18 years, bringing smiles to excited children at places, such as Harvey Norman, the children’s ward at GV Health and countless charity events around the district.
You could say he is built for it.
‘‘People trust Santa, people come up to you — they’re not scared,’’ he said.
‘‘But you have to be careful when you ask kids what they want for Christmas. One little girl said ‘I want my Dad’. You can’t promise kids what you can’t deliver.’’
Being Santa is just one of many community roles Steve plays that involves trust, care and love.
He has worked with vulnerable youth at Berry Street, as an employment consultant with the Salvos and with struggling communities at Uniting Care Cutting Edge.
Along the way, he has come up with wacky and occasionally embarrassing ways to raise funds for a plethora of charities and good causes including Berry Street, Relay for Life, Give Me 5 for Kids and the Christmas for Those Alone lunch.
After growing and shaving off his beard as a fundraiser for a number of years, Steve went one step further in 2014 when he shaved his head bald, waxed his eyebrows and wore a ‘‘mankini’’ at a bowls match to raise money for the children’s ward at GV Health.
When he stood for council at the 2016 elections he pledged to donate his entire councillor payment to the Goulburn Valley Community Fund, saying he believed ‘‘serving the community as a councillor is such an honour and is a privilege... to me that is my payment’’.
Steve is big on community and everyone pitching in.
He has coached junior football teams from Ardmona to Longwood, and he led the defunct Wunghnu Football Netball Club as president during the tough years until its demise in 2011.
For the past eight years he has given up his own family time to bring the Christmas for Those Alone lunch to the table for hundreds of people on Christmas Day.
This year he led a team of more than 60 volunteers to deliver good cheer and food to hundreds at the Shepparton Showgrounds’ McIntosh Centre.
Of course, Steve played Santa doling out the presents and the jolliness. But he is adamant that it is not just about him.
‘‘It’s a credit to the businesses who donate food, drinks, balloons, table settings — and they don’t seek recognition,’’ he said.
He’s quick to praise the commitment of his fellow committee members including long-time volunteers Peg Newman, Linda Davidson and chef Terry Wyatt.
‘‘It’s a real community day, we have retired people and younger people — we’re a real diverse community,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s a full-on day and every child receives a present.’’
Some might have deep or painful personal reasons for giving their time selflessly to others — but for Steve it is not that complicated.
‘‘We’ve all gotta live together in harmony — and we need to get young people involved. The youth are our future. Let’s do it,’’ he said.
After attending Wilmot Rd Primary and South Tech he went on to work in supermarket management at Tuckerbag, Coles and Woolworths.
But eventually, the pull of community work was too much.
‘‘There comes a time in your life when you say ‘this isn’t what I want to be doing’,’’ he said.
‘‘What’s that old saying? You have to live to work, not the other way around,’’ is all he says about his decision to work with the vulnerable, the damaged and the struggling.
Perhaps the clues lie in his role models.
As a teenager he would deliver Meals on Wheels with his mother, while his father worked for 48 years at Mewo Metal Products in Callister St.
So it is no wonder that Steve makes a good Santa and reckons hard work and giving back is the way to make the world a better place.
What is a wonder is how he deals with with the trauma and messed up lives and despair he has witnessed in his life as a social worker, carer, youth mentor and human family fixer around Shepparton.
‘‘It’s hard — it does affect you. You can’t pretend it doesn’t,’’ he said.
‘‘These things affect everyone. But there are so many good people in Shepp.
‘‘Maybe we need to change things around, just do it for us. Do it for Shepparton’s kids.’’