Photography: Robert Blackburn

As the crowds gather at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the annual blockbuster Melbourne vs. Richmond ANZAC Eve match, there’s one thing that has become intrinsic to the footy tradition.

“People just come forward to put a donation in for the ANZAC Appeal and with EFTPOS machines. You don’t even need to have cash - people can just tap to put some funds into a great cause,” says Narelle Hart, General Manager of the Epping RSL.

This year, a limited edition pin featuring the Melbourne and Richmond flags will be on sale for $20.

Since 2015, when the ANZAC eve footy tradition began, RSL volunteers have dedicated their time to raising money for the ANZAC Appeal, scattering themselves around the ground for the public’s easy access to a donation box.

The annual Appeal is critical for RSL Victoria to deliver the services needed by veterans and their families.

"The funds raised are so important to help past and current serving men and women with their challenges. Whatever the need, from helping them to pay for petrol or food, transporting them to appointments, to assisting with mowing their lawns, getting them into housing, food hampers and various other welfare needs."

Narelle Hart

“When we first came out, we found we weren’t ‘bright’ enough, we didn’t stand out enough, people were missing us in the crowds. So, we came back the following year with fluro vests and lighting. But then we found there weren’t enough of us to man the selling, so that’s when we started getting other RSL Sub-Branches involved.”

Epping, Reservoir, Doreen and Sunshine RSL Sub-Branches have joined together to support the veteran community.

Now, in a collaborative effort between four Sub-Branches – Epping, Reservoir, Doreen and Sunshine – it is hoped there will be up to 100 volunteers to take the many generous donations.

“We are all raising funds for the one cause, so why not get together to help with the demand of trying to capture everyone coming forward to buy a badge.”

Sarah Evers is the Secretary of the Doreen RSL Sub-Branch. The Doreen Sub-Branch is relatively new, chartered in 2017, and working hard to support the growing veteran community in the local area.

“For Epping to be able to share the love is just indescribable. For us, being such a small Sub-Branch, four hours at the MCG on ANZAC Eve is almost like two weeks' worth of selling,” she says.

Sub-Branches have banded together to raise funds for our veteran community.
Sub-Branches have banded together to raise funds for our veteran community.

A night game before the ANZAC Day Dawn Service has presented its challenges for some of the volunteer cohort.

“It’s a bit hard for our older diggers or volunteers to come out at that time, especially when they want to be up for the Dawn Service just hours later,” says Narelle.

A workaround has seen the volunteer network expand into also recruiting from local high schools and sport clubs.

“People will bring their families, which is a great event for the children to come with their parents and help raise some money.”

She says it’s a fantastic community effort that has so many wonderful benefits.

“It educates the children and shows why we do it, the importance of remembering, looking after people, and why the ANZAC Appeal is important. It’s beautiful to see the father and son, or father and daughter come forward with their children and have an absolute ball.”

Limited edition badges will be available for purchase at the MCG.
Limited edition badges will be available for purchase at the MCG.

On game night, there’s an excitement in the air that’s palpable.

“As the sun goes down and the trains start rolling in you can hear the laughter, people yelling out to each other, families and friends meeting up, shaking hands, hugging, meeting up at a gate. It’s such a social activity. Kids are so excited to see their footy teams, the banter, the joy. And then they see us. People don’t even question who we are or what we’re doing. Straight away it’s, ‘Oh, the ANZAC Appeal.’ You chat to people, complete strangers. You get veterans that come up to you and they thank us for what we do, but I just say, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done!’ says Sarah.

Narelle says it’s a few hours of adrenaline.

“I sometimes will have some extra people on standby as runners because I have people calling me saying they’ve run out of this, they need that, their boxes are empty and need more stock! It’s crazy, everyone is under the pump. It gives you a bit of a warm, fuzzy feeling that people are looking for you to donate.”

Like much of the organisation for the ANZAC Appeal, Narelle says it’s an epic effort that requires months of planning.

Narelle Hart and Sarah Evers.
Narelle Hart and Sarah Evers.

“We send out memos to a lot of the community that we know will come forward to help. We all meet, travel into the city by train, meet at the MCG, collect selling boxes. We also have paid staff from the RSL’s that come to volunteer their time and help us on the night. We have security procedures in place for volunteers to ensure their safety. That’s a big priority. I take water and snacks and try to make sure we have everything available for everybody who is helping. It’s a great big organisation that has become bigger and better at raising funds every year.”

Narelle’s been at the Epping RSL for 22 years and counting, motivated by both her grandfathers, her father and brother-in-law’s service.

"Our diggers didn’t give up on us to fight for our country, past and present. I think it’s important not to give up on helping them and raising the funds that go towards giving them a little back."

Narelle Hart

“I have a lot of reasons to keep supporting generations of new and old.”