Opportunities to pitch in for a good cause during the festive season are many and varied – from soup kitchen to care home to stately home – that there is truly something for everyone. Why, though, make it a one-off or once-a-year binge? Why not step up, spare a day here or there and give a hand all year round?
Voluntary work brings rewards far beyond the quiet satisfaction of doing something useful. It can be social, companionable, creative, fulfilling. It lifts the spirit and broadens the mind. And as these committed unpaid helpers know, volunteering is not just for Christmas, it’s for life.
Raising funds for the Rotary Club
Many branches of the Rotary Club in towns across the UK get together to belt out carols to raise funds for local causes. ‘It’s great fun,’ says club secretary Lyn Crabtree, from the Chippenham branch. ‘We have bells, backing music, we put on silly hats and mess about.‘
‘We have an absolute ball,’ agrees fellow Rotarian Rick Squires. ‘A lot of kids are transfixed by it. You don’t have carol singers coming around the way they used to…’
Rotarians meet to socialise and to contribute to their community. ‘We raise money for charity – for the air ambulance, for example, for a children’s hospice, and by organising Chippenham’s main firework event,’ explains retired psychotherapist Lyn. ‘We’ve made a garden for a women’s refuge, and a few years ago we raised enough to build a hydrotherapy pool at a school for disabled children. We respond to events in the world.’
On the leisure side, ‘We have boat trips, Sunday lunches, exchange visits with our twinned club in France. New members are always welcome.’
Rick’s background ‘retired’ is a career in the energy business, and he still sits on four company boards and lectures around the world. Like Lyn, he joined for both the social aspects – ‘It’s a great way to meet people’ – and the chance to give something back.
Rotary Great Britain and Ireland 01789 765411
Volunteering for the National Trust
The National Trust offers tremendous opportunities for volunteers: everything from storytelling in a medieval castle, to tending a Capability Brown garden, leading guided walks and more.
‘Our volunteers and members are our mainstay,’ says NT marketing adviser Joanna Crosse. ‘With their support we can do much more as a conservation charity. People become volunteers for lots of different reasons – fun, camaraderie and the contentment of working for something really worthwhile.’
National Trust 0344 800 1895
Filling gift boxes for charity
Across the country around Christmas, centres spring up, staffed by volunteers, to handle hundreds of thousands of shoeboxes filled with gifts to bring delight to children in 16 countries. What began in 1990 as an initiative by one man moved by images of Romanian orphans, has grown into Operation Christmas Child, a global enterprise, distributing almost 11.2 million boxes back in 2016 alone, under the umbrella of Samaritan’s Purse.
‘We’re always receiving stories of the joy a box has brought a child,’ says Emma Fawcett, East of England manager. ‘Last year I met a lady called Rosalind who’d grown up in Malawi, and hadn’t had any toys at all. They used to make things to play with out of mud, and she’d always wanted a doll to talk to. When she opened her box, there were two dolls. She played with them so much their faces rubbed off.’
Marilyn Coates, a retired family support worker and now volunteer coordinator for Ipswich, says: ‘In 2016 we collected 15,209 shoeboxes. We have about 100 volunteers and might have 40 at a time, working two-hour shifts, twice a day, for three weeks.
‘There’s a lovely atmosphere, and there are jobs for everybody, men and women. Throughout the year I run a craft group where we make little things for the boxes. One lady in her eighties who can’t come to the group any more knits beautiful clothes for the dolls we send. It makes her so proud to know she’s doing something important.’
Samaritan's Purse 020 8559 1180
A fundraising tea party for Mencap
If occasional volunteering best suits your lifestyle, how about hosting a Christmas tea party for Mencap (mince pies optional!)? The charity was launched in 1946 by parents of children with what was then called ‘mental handicap’, and is today ‘the voice of learning disability’ for people of all ages.
‘Our overall vision,’ says Mencap’s Ahmed Khan, ‘is of a world where people with learning disabilities can live the lives they choose, which, unfortunately, is not the case at the moment.’
A tea party is an opportunity not only to raise funds but to raise awareness, unblurring the lines between the lifelong challenges of learning disability and the kind of mental-health issues that can beset any of us.
‘It’s a brilliant thing to do,’ says Janet Pitts, who works as a nanny to two children and is now approaching retirement. It’s about community as much as anything. I initially became interested because I used to work with children with learning difficulties, I have a niece with learning disability, and Mencap deserves a higher profile.’
Janet held her first tea party at her home near Tunbridge Wells for about a dozen guests, and then organised another one through a local kindergarten. ‘It’s good fun. You get to know new people and it’s such a worthwhile cause. Obviously, you need to advertise. I put something on Facebook, and around my village. A few of us bake cakes.’
Mencap can supply support from a local fundraising manager, with ideas and tips to make your party special, plus a pack with cake flags, bunting and balloons for a festive feel. ‘Whether you raise £20 or £2,000,’ says Ahmed, ‘we’d be delighted.’
Mencap's Big Tea Party
A repurposeful life
An organisation called Work and Play Scrapstore in Tooting, south-west London, has an illuminating way of giving Christmas trinkets a new lease of life once the West End festive displays are taken down. They send a van to load up with frosted trees and baubles, as the big stores on Oxford Street dismantle their magical window displays. Scrapstores are independent initiatives across the country, which together have founded the charity Reuseful UK, to support the creative reuse of unwanted resources - donated mainly by businesses - for the benefit of children and communities.
At Work and Play, members pay an annual fee for groups varying from 50 and to upwards of 500 people. For this they can come in on an allotted day to collect materials free of charge.
‘We’ve got just over 400 member groups, schools, colleges, nurseries, home educators…’ says Teresa Reeve, who has been volunteering at the Tooting outlet – a veritable Aladdin’s Cave – for 20 years. ‘I love the companionship, working as a team, meeting our members.’
A visit to a Scrapstore fires the imagination, and Teresa loves to pitch in with ideas. ‘We had a school staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They wanted fairy costumes and we found them some grey patterned voile, translucent and shimmery, ideal for cobwebs.’
Teresa works one day a week in the shop, sometimes two, as well as helping with collections. ‘We’re growing all the time, so we always need volunteers, and there’s something for everyone – drivers, administrators, bloggers, sit-down jobs, stand-up jobs…’
You might even consider starting a Scrapstore of your own. What better antidote to the profligacy of modern society, which reaches its dizziest height at Christmas?
‘We have so much stuff, we can’t put it all out,’ adds Teresa. ‘We say, “If you can’t find what you want, you must ask us.” All our stock could have been on a tip, or incinerated, but instead it gives pleasure.’
Be an angel
Here are a few more ways you can contribute. Check with your favourite charities to see what they have planned:
Reach out to the homeless
Crisis at Christmas sees thousands of volunteers stepping up to bring homeless people some cheer and help to turn their lives around. What can you bring to the party?
Crisis at Christmas0300 636 1967
Dash for cash
In December you can slip into a free Santa suit to join the London Santa Dash on Clapham Common (5k and 10k), organised by Great Ormond Street Hospital. Sprint, stroll, scoot – all are welcome.
GOSH 020 3841 3270
Make a splash
On Christmas Day, hardy souls in fancy dress will gather by Boscombe Pier near Bournemouth to scamper into the sea in a bid to raise funds for Macmillan Caring Locally.
This is just one of a growing number of similar seasonal events – including many Boxing Day dips - held around the country, where hardy souls take the plunge into the freezing seas for a variety of charitable causes.
White Christmas Dip
Salvation Army gift drive
Donate a gift to the little boys and girls that Santa Claus forgets. Until mid-December, Salvation Army centres nationwide run a Christmas present appeal, inviting you to bring in new presents, still in their packaging.
Salvation Army (search ‘Christmas present appeal’), 020 7367 4500
Walk with the wounded
Why not organise a walk in support of our ex-servicemen and women? Call on your friends and family to join you Walking Home for Christmas.
Walking Home for Christmas
Running for Edinburgh
There are pipers piping, dancers dancing plus reindeer and elves at the Edinburgh Christmas Santa Parade in early December, heralding the start of the city’s two-day Christmas Charity Festival.
And during the festival an ever-growing number of joggers take part to create a river of runners in 5k and 10k charity events at Inverleith Park. Why not find out if there are any Christmas charity fun-runs in your neck of the woods?
Christmas Charity Festival 0131 336 3620