Sharon Spink will never forget the phone call she received last Christmas Eve as a mother sat in tears with no gifts under the tree.
“Last year, a social worker had gone into a girl’s house in Montrose and she was sitting crying because she had no presents for her children,” says the Angus Toy Appeal chairwoman.
“I was standing at the sink peeling my tatties for Christmas dinner when this call came. We get referrals right up to Christmas Eve and luckily, my daughter is also on the committee.
“So I asked Claire to go to the store and fill a bag up and was able to get it to Montrose in time.”
Families in need
Christmas 2020 may look a lot different from previous years, but some things haven’t changed.
Families are still in need – some more than ever before. And those who donate or give up their time to help others makes a huge difference in difficult times.
Despite the hurdles posed by the pandemic, the generosity of our communities continues to shine through this festive season.
Here are some local charities rising to the challenge of a Covid Christmas:
Angus Toy Appeal
Angus Toy Appeal chairwoman Sharon Spink says it’s bittersweet that the appeal continues to grow every year: “It’s good you can do it – but it’s sad you have to.”
Organisations have had to be a lot more organised as they dance around the fluctuating restrictions. Sharon says the appeal was launched earlier, “because we’re all living day to day.”
“We used to rely on donation boxes to collect donations but a third were in local council buildings and the staff are working from home now. Dentists are also great collection points and they aren’t really open any more,” she explains.
“This year we also started a JustGiving page and an Amazon wish list for people who want to donate but don’t want to go to shops.”
Local businesses have continued to act as drop-off points for the appeal, which provided help for around 1,200 families in 2019. This figure was already equalled by the beginning of November, with referrals continuing to flood in.
Sharon says families that could have been living quite comfortably until the pandemic hit may be in need this Christmas.
“Normally a lot of referrals come in through schools and social workers but this year you might have a nice house and car but no money in the bank if you’ve been made redundant.
Here to help
“We’re here to help anyone who is facing financial difficulties because of Covid – we’re here to help out with their children.”
Based in Arbroath’s High Street, volunteers have been packing up parcels for children aged from zero to 18, with bags containing items such as a selection box, toothbrush, book, puzzle, toy and game.
“We have been filling the bags and getting them out as quick as we can because we don’t know what tomorrow’s going to hold,” Sharon continues.
The appeal has been running for over 20 years, helping families who find themselves in dire straits at Christmastime.
And it’s the kindness of local residents that shines through: “We put in a lot of hours of our own time. But it’s when you see how much the community give. At one point we wondered how we were going to do this – then we realised ‘we can do this’!”
Perth and Kinross Foodbank
At Perth and Kinross Foodbank, volunteers help people in crisis all year. At Christmas time, there is usually an upsurge in demand for help which lasts until January or February.
Marjorie Clark is a trustee, secretary to the management committee and also team leader at the foodbank, which has been operating since 2013.
From the beginning of December, volunteers have been packing seasonal “jingle bags” which are given out in addition to a regular food parcel. These contain extra festive food as well as some toiletries and gifts.
Marjorie says the foodbank has also recorded new clients who haven’t used the foodbank before: “One of the main things we try to do when people come to the food bank is to put them at their ease, to treat them with dignity and say there is no shame in having to get a food parcel because we are all aware of how difficult circumstances are at the moment.
Delighted to help
“We are delighted to help – and remind them that the community are delighted to help. This food is here and we’d rather they had it.
“Sometimes people say: ‘we’re really grateful to you’ and we say it’s the people who have donated the food – they care as well so please don’t worry about getting a food parcel.”
Another issue the foodbank now has to tackle is how to get food to people in need who are self-isolating. Since lockdown began they have been working closely with Perth and Kinross Council’s community team to help distribute to people who cannot come in person.
If 2020 had been a “normal” year, they wouldn’t have struck up this partnership: “The connection that we have made has been very useful for both sides. We’re very glad. It’s been a two-way process. They have valued working with us as much as we have valued working with them.”
Since the beginning of lockdown there has been a council emergency number – 0345 30 111 00 – that you can phone for people who need support and need to be referred.
Because the foodbank in Perth’s Cutlog Vennel lost volunteers in lockdown, it is now open fewer days per week, but for longer hours on those days. There is also a distribution centre in Blairgowrie. Clients are now served at the door due to social distancing measures.
Marjorie says they are well stocked at the moment, “thanks to the generosity of the public and lots of different groups who are able to support us, people giving at supermarkets.”
“We have found that right from the beginning [of lockdown] that people have been very generous and thinking about the needs of other folk.”
The Toy Drive
The Toy Drive has been working with families since March, providing much-needed help to those in North East Fife affected by the year’s unprecedented events.
Run by Cupar-based social workers Victoria Leonard and Laura Lumsden, the Toy Drive primarily operates at Christmas time but has also helped families struggling to buy birthday presents.
When lockdown hit, it kept doing what it does best.
Victoria explains: “A number of families didn’t have things such as arts and crafts items, board games or garden furniture so we gave out Amazon vouchers with the small pot of money that we had throughout lockdown very quietly. We just said yes to everybody.”
Because of Victoria and Laura’s day jobs they already had good relationships with the people who could identify families in need. “They knew to phone in and say: ‘any chance?’.
“We also made it clear if there were birthdays coming up that we had toys. Obviously shops were shut and we were able to provide items. We tried to take the pressure off wherever we could.”
Looking to the future
As restrictions eased over the summer months, Victoria and Laura found themselves pondering how the Toy Drive would work come the end of the year.
The appeal had always relied upon physical donations as well as donations of cash, which went towards Santa sacks and selection boxes.
“My first feeling was that because our collection points are so well established – like schools and businesses – my concern was we wouldn’t be able to do these,”
“Then people started to ask if we were taking donations so I set up a JustGiving
page as that was the easiest way for everybody.”
Doing some rough calculations based on the 500 children helped last year, Victoria thought if they could raise £5,000 that meant at the very least a £10 Amazon voucher could be provided for everyone.
In just three weeks, over £4,000 was raised and they have now exceeded the £5,000 target. Victoria is acutely aware that many families have felt the pinch of the pandemic and is so thankful for everyone’s generosity.
Referrals may increase this year because of Covid-19 and the JustGiving page has made it possible to provide vouchers for every child in need. Referrals will always be accepted up to the very last minute.
We trust them
“There’s a level of empowerment we hope we’re giving to our families by saying that we trust them to spend it on what they know their children need,” Victoria goes on.
“I don’t simply see the Toy Drive as just making sure a child has a toy – it has far more reaching benefit. That voucher contributes to that family.
“If we are taking the pressure off for a family by providing something it also takes the financial restraint away from that situation.”
“We’ve accepted that it will just have to look a bit different. Our hope is next year we will be back to those hessian sacks.”
Nyree Keith lives in Dunfermline and works part-time for Edinburgh-based homeless charity Cyrenians as a community cook club co-ordinator.
She is also a co-ordinator of the community pantry project based at the town’s Tryst Centre.
Since the pandemic arrived, Nyree says her ability to connect with clients has been seriously impacted: “In normal times I would be running the cook clubs, which are described as ‘something to eat and someone to eat with’ tackling social isolation.
“I usually have clubs at the Tryst Centre, the Liberty Church and one at Wellwood in the Salvation Army building.”
Nyree was furloughed from her role at Cyrenians earlier this year, only returning in October. The venues, however, have not yet reopened.
She has been working hard to create other ways to reach out: “A lot of the people who attend are elderly and it’s hard to ask them to set up a Zoom meeting or a WhatsApp video call.
“People told me they were missing their new friends and it may be that they hadn’t exchanged numbers, so I did this for people. I also send recipes so they could perhaps make a pot of soup and then sit down and have a chat together while they eat.”
Nyree has also started handing out lots of fresh vegetables in her community and this has been a good way of seeing old faces as well as meeting new people.
“The first week, I had about 150kg of vegetables and it all went. We speak about the different vegetables and share recipes. So although we’re not able to cook together we are still able to share stories.”
At Christmas time, the cook clubs would normally hold a special event for lunch: “Some people may come along because they don’t really get a Christmas meal. They might not have anyone they can go and spend Christmas with.
“This year, I will be putting a Christmas hamper together for people and I will be speaking to them and encouraging them to reach out and phone a friend on Christmas Day.”