The real Secret Santas: these community volunteers give their time at Christmas to support those struggling to cope
Joe O'Shea meets the woman behind Cork's legendary Penny Dinners
'Santy's a bollix," is not a phrase you're used to hearing at this time of year.
But those are the words that inspired fitness and wellness coach Helen Walsh to expand her Christmas charity effort, Operation Snowball, to include children from refuges.
"I was out on the streets giving out some leftover food from our hamper drive to the homeless when I met two kids kicking a ball about," says Helen. "And they said 'that Santy's a bollix, he never came to us'. And that just broke my heart. Every child should get a visit from the big man."
Helen made it her mission to ensure that as few people as possible in Dublin would suffer a similar fate. She organises an annual collection in the city to add a little sparkle to Christmas for those not doing so well this year.
The idea is simple. People pledge on Facebook to donate what's called a snowball - basically a plastic bag of supplies worth between €5 to €25 - and drop it off at Sedgwick Ireland in Sandymount in Dublin tomorrow (December 16) where they will be processed, then picked up and distributed by a team of volunteers.
"There's the pink snowball for women who have left domestic situations and are living in refuges, a red snowball for people who are homeless, an orange snowball for people suffering from mental-health issues who are in long-term residential care and a purple snowball for young people in danger of ending up in the streets."
There's also a white snowball (a donation of €15 concealed in a white envelope) that will go towards buying sleeping bags, and a Santa Toy Collection that has largely been handled by the staff at Tesco in Sandymount.
"We just want to bring a little comfort and joy to women who are so focused on survival that luxuries like presents might be beyond them. Or to people who may have been forgotten about by society or their families, left in institutions or hospitals or on the street, without anybody thinking about them or visiting them. Everyone should have a little joy at Christmas. That's what we are trying to do."
Before she started Operation Snowball, Helen collected donations for Christmas hampers which she would then drop in to people who were in need just before Christmas. "I started by collecting stuff for elderly people - woolly gloves, luxury tissues, stuff they had stopped spending money on themselves. Then people started knocking on my door saying, 'Well this family don't have any food' or 'they don't have this, they don't have that'. They started giving me stuff to give to other people."
One Christmas, her spirit cracked.
"I called up to one family with a hamper the Sunday before Christmas and the woman there hugged me so hard that she left marks on my shoulders. She had a disabled partner, a toddler and nothing for Santy. All she had was an orange in her fridge. This is a woman who couldn't leave her house because her husband needed full-time care and she was trapped there thinking, 'where is it all going to come from'."
Ten years ago, Helen decided to fuse her Christmas Hamper Appeal with Ber Grogan's Basket Brigade, a drive to provide seasonal food for families that weren't being catered for by any frontline services. "Over the years I was adding in homeless packs, hostel packs, etc, so I decided to let Ber and her mum handle the hampers and I would try and make an impact in a different way, through Operation Snowball."
"It's basically a week's shopping," says Grogan discussing the baskets, "some turkey, ham, selection boxes and jellies for the kids."
If people want to drop off food - or help make baskets, they need to be at the handball alley opposite Croke Park by 9am tomorrow.
"Non-perishables are great, so too are rice and pasta, things that aren't necessarily Christmassy but can be used by the family the week after.
"Things like hot chocolate are so important - things that are a bit more expensive, that you might cut back on when you have no money."
Grogan started doing the baskets in 2007. "We'd be going into cold houses, hearing stories of families, usually single mothers, going without food so their children could have toys under the tree."
Then the recession hit.
"It was just heartbreaking. People who have medical bills or any sort of chronic illness having to do without heat, proper coats, nutritious food. We saw people, not statistics.
"People will go to loan sharks or put themselves in debt in non-conventional ways just to stay afloat. There's still a stigma about going to the St Vincent de Paul, or their local charity."
To combat the stigma, people can nominate, anonymously, anyone they feel is in need, or even themselves, through the Basket Brigade's Facebook page and they will bring you a hamper the week before Christmas.
The reactions they get are phenomenal. "The joy on the faces of the kids, to see boxes in wrapping paper or food wrapped in transparent plastic with a nice bow around it, coming through their front door."
Unfortunately, as well as the joy, Ber is forced to make some hard decisions.
"Last year, we had enough left over to make two more baskets so we touched base with one of the associations we are affiliated with to see who got them. We became overwhelmed by the response. We had to go with first come, first serve and cobble together shopping bags for the rest."
Since 1929, The Knights of St Columbanus have hosted their annual Christmas Dinner in Dublin's RDS. They make dinners onsite, largely for people living on the streets.
"There are more foreign nationals now than there would have been 10 years ago," says Paddy Sheridan, chairman of the Christmas Day Dinner Committee. "The guests used to be almost entirely Dublin people or country people living up here. Now 10-15pc are foreign while we have a lower proportion of older men and a higher proportion of families."
Buses circle the city from about 9.30am, picking up people who are sleeping rough, with stops on O'Connell Street, The Four Courts and Dawson Street, and continue to circle this route until the venue is at its capacity of about 500 people.
"When they arrive at the RDS, we have a meet-and-greet area, they get some hot tea and coffee, there's some ad-hoc entertainment, and then they are welcomed in the main dining hall where our volunteers help them to tables."
They receive a three-course dinner - turkey and ham, a dessert, and tea and coffee - with soft drinks and mild beers on the table. They don't serve any hard liquor.
"Once in a while you might come across a guest who has taken something before they arrived and they might need the assistance of the Order of Malta. But it's very rare that we have any trouble. We allocate certain areas for families, so we can keep them together and the children out of harm's way."
While the guests aren't rushed out at the end, the hall needs to be returned to the RDS in the state it was received in, and the last guests reboard the bus at about 2.30pm.
"That can be difficult to watch, " says Paddy, "particularly on years like last year where the weather was quite bad."
The almost 6,000 people in Direct Provision do not have the facilities to make their own Christmas Dinner. Surviving on €21.60 each per week (although rising to €38 per adult and €29 per child a week in March 2019) means they often cannot afford to buy toys for their children either. That's why the Jesuit Refugee Service launched a Christmas Toy Appeal back in 2013.
"Every child deserves a present at Christmas," says Dave Moriarty, assistant director of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
"This is a simple way of reaching out to people who were marginalised and isolated, to show we recognise the situation, we are thinking of you and you are welcome in this country."
Unwrapped presents were flowing into their premises at St Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street, Dublin before yesterday's deadline. "All we ask is that people don't send guns or anything with a military association, as a lot of people living in DP will have fled warzones and we wouldn't want to trigger anybody.
"And we would also ask that the toy does not cost more than €15, as we don't want a situation where one child has the latest computer console and another has something from the €2 store.
"The stuff that is popular is the timeless stuff. Lego, board games, something that can engage the whole family, that parents can enjoy with their kids."
Filling the days after the holidays with activities is a struggle for parents when you are living beneath the breadline. Rachel Cunningham organised A Merry Little Santa Drive last year for kids who might not get Santa because of their living situation. "And to think that they might think that that's because they were bold, because that's what we're told as kids. I've worked in the homeless sector for nearly 10 years, and I honestly still can't get my head around it, which I'm glad because I never want to normalise misery like that.
"I started last year on Facebook, asking people to donate a gift, reaching 72 kids. This year we've reached over 400 and we can't physically cater for any more. But we are always looking for support for families to help them fill their days during the Christmas holidays.
"We had families last year who didn't even make plans for Christmas Day. They were just going to sit in the room and all they have is a kettle. We were going to give hampers, but a lot of the stuff they couldn't even cook. So anyone who would like to help can post activity vouchers for the cinema, zoo, restaurants, etc - anything fun for families to have a better Christmas - to Hen's Teeth Arts & Lifestyle store, 13 Fade Street, Dublin 2. These can be sent throughout the holidays, not just before Christmas, as we can get them out to families any day."
It's not just young people who need social diversions during what can be a very difficult time of the year.
Lost interest in cooking
Friends of the Elderly have held a social club in their premises in Bolton Street every Wednesday since the organisation was founded in 1980, to keep isolated elderly people socially engaged. "We had feedback within the first year that, when we were closed over the holiday period, many of the elderly people who went to the club were eating alone," says Bernie Curran, manager of the service.
"Some weren't keeping hydrated; others had lost interest in cooking for one after the death of a partner. Most of our client group are over 65, have experienced widowhood, their children have grown up and for whatever reason are struggling with the new, negative changes, alongside physical and mental decline.
"So we decided to put on a big Christmas event, to give them something to look forward to and make the holiday period more enjoyable."
They cook 220 three-course meals, spread across three dates.
"People will drop in a bottle of wine, a crate of beer, scarves, hats and the like that they have received as unwanted presents so that we can re-gift them from Santy. People can also make regular or one-off financial donations through our website."
"If I had no club, I'd be lost," says Jim Moore, a former docker and the Meryl Streep of the volunteering world, nominated for two separate awards for his charity work this year.
"You'd get Alzheimer's, or, with nowhere else to go, you'd end up down the pub or in the bookies. I saw too many people from the docks, who, within a few years of retiring, were dead from doing just that."
Christmas is a sad time for some of the group. "There are some members you wouldn't see from one end of the year to the next because they are too frail to travel. But they don't miss the Christmas party. Taxis are put on to bring them and they have a great time here."
Poverty is not seasonal. Some people, particularly children, have needs throughout the year and money raised over Christmas goes towards looking after them.
On Sunday, December 2, The Laurels Cycle Crew organised Ireland's biggest Santa Cycle. Leaving the Phoenix Park, 500 bike-clad Santas draped in fairy lights, pedalled up the Quays on a 16k route that ended in Clondalkin, passing Our Lady's Hospital in Crumlin, whose orthopaedic unit benefited from the money raised, along the way.
"When I was a kid you fought to get out of hospital not to get in," says Deirdre McDonnell (38) who suffered from scoliosis and who took part in the cycle herself. "The waiting lists are so bad that nurses and surgeons have started giving their time pro bono to clear some of the patients that aren't critical, so they could be waiting for years for care. The beds and drugs still have to be paid for but a day's work to a surgeon is life changing to a child waiting."
While the final tally still hasn't been confirmed, it is believed that enough was raised to push them over the €1m mark in the 10 years they have been organising cycles for different children's charities.
For Helen Walsh of Operation Snowball, the knocks on her door continue long after Santa's sleigh has departed.
"People are mind-blowingly kind, that's the big thing I take from doing all of this. They come up to me all the time, saying 'I have a new bed, a new sofa, do you know anyone who could use the old one? We furnished two houses last year of people who finally got out of temporary accommodation, solely from the kindness of strangers.
"But it's incredible to me that so many people are one pay cheque away from homelessness. Where their means doesn't allow for anything to go wrong and they are backed into a corner by whatever situation they have gotten themselves into. That's survival. It's not living."
‘We see parents desperate to make Christmas happy for their children’
For Caitriona Twomey, volunteering has always been a family tradition, begun by a father who would play Santa to hundreds of Cork's most needy on Christmas Day.
As a child growing up by the Lee, the lady who now runs Cork's Penny Dinners would not see her father Tom until late each Christmas Day. The children did not know that their father, the Mess Sergeant at Collins Barracks, and his comrades would be up at dawn, preparing hundreds of Christmas dinners to serve to those that needed them in the canteen of the city's College of Commerce.
"When we were very young, we always missed him on Christmas Day. One year we wrote a Christmas letter to daddy, asking him why he wasn't there, why we had to wait until what felt like Christmas night to have our dinner?" says Caitriona.
"I suppose we were sad that we didn't have him around. He didn't tell us then, there was just a hug for us all. But then he brought me with him one Christmas - I was about 12 -and I saw what they were doing for people, all of these people of Cork who wouldn't have had much of a Christmas Day without them."
The proud Army man passed away in 1996. After his death, neighbours and friends of the family around the North Cathedral in Cork began to tell Caitriona of Tom and her mother Breda's many acts of quiet charity, the families who had held on to a home thanks to a little money for the rent, the men who came to talk to him about their troubles, the elderly who found a little food on their doorsteps, some coal in the yard, a friendly face to ease the loneliness. Tom had recruited a small army of volunteers, ordinary men and women who could always be depended on to find a basket of food, a little money, or the time to knock on a door and share a cup of tea.
That was the beginning for Caitriona, who has spent the past 12 years volunteering at and running the city's much-cherished Penny Dinners charity.
And Christmas remains a time of great want but also great service for the people who come to Penny Dinners and the scores of volunteers who help them with everything from a hot meal or a bag of toiletries to advice on budgeting, or accessing housing and classes in healthy eating on a budget, using the internet or preparing a CV.
"Christmas can be very difficult, we see parents who are desperate to make it happy for their children, we try to help them, and often it's the parents who need it most because they are the ones who will bear all of the pressure," says Caitriona.
The Penny Dinners is Cork's oldest independent charity, established in the 1840s at the height of the Famine. There had been a feeling in the city, before the economic crash and the austerity that followed, that in our newly prosperous country, the time for such charities had passed. But Caitriona says the volunteers now work from dawn to late into the night.
"More people are homeless, more people are going into debt, struggling with the basics and the supports are just not there. People need us and we turn no one away".
Her own children are now grown up, but continue to volunteer when they can, in keeping with the family tradition.
"This Christmas, we will have people coming back from Australia, from America, who would have volunteered here before or been the children of volunteers, and they will drop in to say hello, help out a bit. It's lovely to see them all back," she says.
Christmas Day will see Caitriona and her team open their doors at 6am. Christmas boxes for the children will be waiting, along with hearty meals, just as her father Tom and his Army comrades had prepared for so many years. It is a Christmas tradition, all under the Penny Dinners motto; "We Never Judge - We Serve".
For more information visit corkpennydinners.ie/
How to help this Christmas
For more information on Operation Snowball check out Helen Walsh's website Helenwalsh.ie/pass-it-on/
To donate to Knights of St Columbanus Christmas Day dinner fund, visit Christmasdaydinner.com/
For more information on how to help the Jesuit Refugee Service, visit jrs.net/
On how to help Friends of the Elderly, visit friendsoftheelderly.ie/
Contact St Vincent de Paul at svp.ie
For more information of the Basket Brigade 2018 or A Merry Little Santa Drive check out their respective Facebook pages.