Not everyone’s looking forward to Christmas

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Look around you – it’s hard resisting the festive spirit. The city swamped in starry lights, non-stop chatter on radio about plans for the holiday season, and TV advertisements imploring us to ‘give’, and ‘make it just that extra special for someone’.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, they say, but there’s not much room in big brand advertising for the symbolism of the birth of Christ, or the charitable traditions of Christmas…. so what really is Christmas?

A few weeks ago, a group of colleagues from work and I took a break from the self-indulgent nature of Christmas when we were invited to spend the day with young disadvantaged children at a primary school in South London.

Together with Kids Company – a charity that provides practical, educational and emotional support to children around London, we organised six different activities from cupcake dressing and face-painting, to making cards and playing musical chairs.

The volunteers dressed up as Santa’s elves, Christmas trees, and a Christmas pudding. Of the Santas, one in particular was effortlessly jolly and the other had a sophisticated hand wave. The elves and trees were cheerful throughout the day and made sure the kids had enough to eat and drink.

As a Christmas pudding, I was tasked with face painting. Nervous at first, I gradually got better with every butterfly and lion, and excelled in Superman faces. I just hoped nobody would want ‘Lady Gaga’.

While having their faces painted, some of the kids engaged in conversation, but others preferred to stay quiet and concentrate on the final outcome. Many left satisfied, recommending to their friend and pointing to the face-painting desk. It wasn’t long before we heard another ‘Miss, I would like a butterfly.’

‘Are you looking forward to Christmas?’ I asked Jeff, a seven year old boy (name changed). There was a hesitation followed by a soft whisper ‘No’.

The feeling of anxiety before Christmas is not unique to young children. Yesterday, at Crisis – a shelter that welcomes rough sleepers and people without families – there was an elderly lady, perhaps in her early sixties, apprehensive about idea of spending the day on her own. ‘Without public transport, don’t think I could make it to the centre, and I’m not sure what I’d do by myself apart from smoke cigarettes, she said wistfully.

For all that X’mas has to offer – Christmas markets, festive treats et al, I became slightly confused about the spirit of Christmas.

While Covent Garden saw festive shoppers indulge in the festive spirit, the world of young children at Kids Co. and Crisis was a far cry from what I see every day.

Perhaps the idea of Santa Claus is a fictional character that some children only see in films.  While speaking with the Kids Co. volunteers, we were informed a majority of the children at the school were emotionally abused, homeless and from troubled backgrounds.

‘A significant proportion of children find Christmas a struggle and this is further exacerbated by pre-existing financial difficulties in their families,’ said Jasmina Stosic from Kids Company. ‘These children don’t come from stable homes.
They have to make choices between paying the gas bills and celebrating
Christmas,’ she added.

Similarly volunteers at Crisis are up against the odds in trying to accommodate most guests as there has been a 43 per cent increase in homeless people since the last year.

Recent statistics released by Joseph Rowntree Foundation show child poverty in the UK has fallen to 27 per cent, its lowest rate for almost 25 years. However Jasmina said, ‘That frankly is misleading, we are looking after more than 36,000 children, and the number is growing.’

I recalled what Dr. Seuss had said in How the Grinch stole Christmas: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!  What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

With more than 30,000  children anxious about the holiday season, and a significant rise in people without a roof above their head, we could probably all afford to do a little bit more, either with our time or our money, to benefit those for whom Christmas offers no consolation from daily life.

Nobody said it would be easy – but not forgetting those most in need at Christmas time will mean more smiles on children’s faces all year round.

 

 

My Christmas at Crisis

When I woke up this morning, I was apprehensive, scared and not sure if I had made the right choice. Yesterday was stressful, I just wanted my bed. Its Christmas week and didn’t feel like it apart from the decor adorning the posh stores in Bruton Lane and the Christmas Tree in Berkley Square.

It was not my regular Christmas; I  didn’t wake up to the sounds of people rushing to church or a list of plans or things lined up for the day. This time, I was preparing to spend the day with homeless people at Hammersmith centre.

Naysayers said they would smell, they are drunk and ‘ Charlene, I bet you next time you will not go back again.’  When I reached the Crisis Hammersmith Centre this morning, the atmosphere was different. Volunteers from the gate were out in the cold to greet the homeless with a friendly smile and a warm welcome, it was heart warming.

I scurried in, tried to drop my bags off at the staff area and make my way to the Arts and Entertainment. Help was needed with additional poster making, I was only happy to. Drawing with oil crayons took me back to my school days. My mind went blank for a few minutes; I was making Art workshop posters. Little did I Imagine, just drawing and painting would bring much joy
It wasn’t long before the main games area started to fill in with the guests. I liked the way the homeless were referred to as ‘guests’. Trying to break the ice is always hard. Some were chatty; some with language barriers tended to keep to themselves.

I attempted to chat to the quiet man sitting in the corner. It didn’t take me long to figure out he was Italian, and moreover from a city I was familiar with Arezzo, from my days in Florence studying Italian. I listened to him, he was positive, didn’t drink or take heroin. I asked him what brought him to London. He told me about his divorce – he was in London 25 years ago, and went back. The current economic situation compelled him to return in the hope of finding some work in the restaurant business. But a few day into his stay,  he was robbed, and this drove him to sleeping rough on the streets. I was curious to know what it was like, how he survived?

He was quick to emphasise; When tough situations are thrown at you; you always find the courage to survive. He was extremely positive and fondly spoke of his mum, why was I not surprised? Bless.  I was touched by his simplicity, humility and positive outlook despite the odds.

It was nice to meet fellow volunteers during the day. No one spoke about what he or she did as their job and where they were from. Our only focus was to make it a special day for the guests. In the course of the day, I spoke to many guests. Most of them looked forward to the t – shirt painting workshops which were at 4 pm. Its little wonder they say some of the best art and writing comes form experience in the streets. I thought it was true. Towards the end of the evening, when they were put on display, I was captivated by their imagination.

One of the guests overcoming heroin addiction needed help, and constant reassurance to finish his t-shirt. He was well pleased with a task accomplished, admitting its hard for him to keep focus. He was suicidal and travelled from Newcastle in the hope of finding some company in London for Christmas. Luckily a Crisis pamphlet spotted at Victoria station brought him to the centre in Hammersmith.

In the course of my few days there, you could see the transformation. Many of them were happier, weren’t drinking or under any drug influence, but were happy. A thought that did cross my mind was the fact , there is a huge section of society that is neglected, unloved and uncared. Speaking to most of them, I realised it takes very little to change your circumstances which made me appreciate more what I have in life, a close family, friends and the small things in life.

Many of them were incredibly intelligent, articulate and opinionated. I had many questions and probably still do but most importantly my time them was all about making them feel loved and respected and enjoying their company in every activity I was involved with.

Its all about giving they say, but what one doesn’t realise is how much they get out of the experience, well I did. And I’m sure to go back again.

I left feeling with a real spirit of Christmas, an inner joy and satisfaction not even the buffets or gifts can buy !