Posted on 18/12/2015 by Jeff Walters
Rod Kippen, children’s rights officer
For young care leavers, Christmas can be particularly alienating and isolating.Christmas, we are reminded constantly, is for “family”. But for people with experience of care, options of how to spend the day are either a kind invite (a plus one at someone else’s gathering), a tricky return home to family where this is possible, and very little else.
I’m in my third year helping to organise The Christmas Dinner in Manchester, an event for around 45 care leavers and their children. We lead from the guests’ point of view and avoid institutional language and organisational thinking. There are free taxis to a secret location, top-class food, presents and entertainment.
The Christmas Dinner is one small way of ensuring the feeling of belonging we all need happens for a small group of young people. This year, we’re providing three events in Manchester, Leeds and Hackney in London. Many of us who support the group are care leavers and the rest have a year-long commitment to children in care. We know they deserve our belief and our time. We want to show them this and turn Christmas into something positive for them, a new set of memories.
Some care leavers are returning for their third year to the event. I initially felt uneasy about this, as I felt that we’d just be offering a one-off opportunity in their changing lives, perhaps covering a tricky year when there’s nowhere else to go. But I’ve realised that we’re offering more; we’re making Christmas a different experience for care leavers. We offer a chance to meet other people in the same situation in great surroundings and to reunite with those they’ve spent previous Christmases with. All in all, a bit like a family.
I’ve been the manager at care home Gracewell of Camberley in Surrey since 2013; before that, I was a nurse there for over a decade. We take special care at Gracewell to make every Christmas memorable for residents – it’s almost like a family gathering of its own, with staff and residents working together to create a festive atmosphere and eagerly awaiting the arrival of family and friends.
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My Christmas Day starts at around 7:30am, when I go to every resident’s room distributing presents, followed by one of the staff with the tea trolley. My main aim for the day is to spend time with those residents who are not expecting family visits.
At noon, a Christmas lunch is held for residents and their families, and everyone can choose between different menu options. The lunch is always a big affair, with the dining area decked out in decorations. In the afternoon, we organise musical performances.
Staff don’t wear their usual uniforms on Christmas Day; they wear their festive jumpers. For everyone who works here, we also have special Christmas meals and snacks – like mince pies and turkey.
Most staff are from overseas and so we celebrate every Christmas Day multiculturally. Staff bring in traditional food representing their home countries and everyone gets to sample delicacies from places as diverse as Poland, Romania and the Philippines. In some countries, Christmas Eve is as important as Christmas Day, so we often have two whole days of indulgence. I also make sure to arrange special food from the kitchen for the night staff, so they can have their own celebration.
So on Christmas Day I always leave fulfilled when I see the residents and staff safe and happy – and then I still get to celebrate Christmas with my other family!
One of the first things we do is to help the children write their letters to Santa. Their main worry is that because they are in a refuge and no longer at “home”, Santa won’t be able to find them. Amazing staff help with arranging after-school activities where children get together to write and send their letters. Our children and family workers reassure them they won’t be forgotten and Santa will find them.
Decorating a Christmas tree is always an exciting tradition – even in the refuge. Everyone living in the house is invited to join in the festive fun and this really helps to get everybody into the holiday spirit. We hold our Christmas party in late December; it is a time for everyone to have a shared dinner and receive presents from our very own Mother Christmas.
In addition to the amazing donations from local businesses, social groups and churches, this year Hestia received a shoebox of presents for every single child living in our 39 refuges. Donations and free tickets to Winter Wonderland and Santa’s Grotto (which the children love) mean that no child will miss out at this magical time of the year. Occasionally we receive more gifts than we can give out, but as families arrive throughout the year, we keep the extra toys aside to ensure every child who stays with us has a toy of their own.
The refuge is never empty on Christmas Day but the safety of the women and children who leave the house to see family and friends is always a priority for us. In the runup to Christmas, our staff put in place special plans to ensure that the families stay safe.
* Not her real name