Saturday 24 March 2018

Giving the gift of time

Áilín Quinlan talks to some of the volunteers, who, in the midst of the all-consuming Irish Christmas, sacrifice their own time to make Christmas Day a little bit better for others

ALONE volunteer Michael Hodgins.
ALONE volunteer Michael Hodgins.
Liz Griffin in the Simon Community kitchen with other volunteers.
Cathriona Twomey of the Cork Penny Dinners.

Ailin Quinlan

This Christmas Day, Michael Hodgins will be at the RDS at around noon to collect Christmas dinners for delivery.

The RDS will be a hive of activity, he says, because from early morning, an army of volunteer chefs have been preparing Christmas dinners to be picked up by a fleet of drivers who then distribute them to those in need across Dublin.

"I've done a few Christmas Days over the years, and generally I will be at the RDS by between noon and 1pm to pick up the food bags and the goodie bags," says Hodgins, a volunteer with ALONE since the 1980s.

"There's a full Christmas dinner in the food bag, and there's also the goodie bag with chocolate and crackers as well!

"I'd pick up four or five of these and I get a map and then I do the rounds.

"People are usually delighted -- on one occasion, one man was waiting at the gate for it.

"It brings cheer, especially if they are living alone, as many of them would be, and also some of them wouldn't be able to make a Christmas dinner as we would know it. It's very welcome.

"The food is extremely good.

"It brings a bit of comfort to people who may not have a family or have people visiting, and it gives them a good Christmas dinner.

"We spend a short time chatting with the person asking if they have everything they need and if they are alright -- I'd generally be finished within a couple of hours.

"You get far more out of it than you put into it -- the expression on their faces and the welcome we receive is wonderful."

The 69-year-old retiree from Foxrock says volunteers regularly visit people who are living alone -- usually men and women from their mid-60s to their nineties across the social spectrum -- and try to address their needs.

"These days, loneliness is the main issue. If there's any material thing they need that we can provide them with, we would."

"I joined ALONE because I knew the founder, Willie Bermingham and I read about him and about everything that got him motivated to start it up. He was an incredible example of what one man can achieve."

* ALONE has a small team of dedicated staff who work on the ground daily with older people.

It receives no government funding and is solely funded from donations from companies and members of the public.

The charity has 150 volunteers, many of whom will be working during the Christmas period.

To volunteer your time or money please log onto or call 01 679 1032.

Cathriona Twomey of the Cork Penny Dinners.




Christmas Day starts early for mother-of-eight Caitriona Twomey -- she's at Cork Penny Dinners HQ by 8.30am.

There, along with some 25 other volunteers, she will be helping to prepare and serve more than 120 free Christmas dinners for the guests, who start arriving from 10am.

"We cater for many homeless people, and for many of them time doesn't matter, so we start serving Christmas dinner from 10am because many of these people are extremely hungry.

"Even on a normal week we start serving dinner from 10am and Christmas Day is no different.

"Sometimes we'll give parents takeaway dinners for children who might be embarrassed about coming in."

The 56-year-old native of Blackpool, who is married with eight children ranging in age from adults in their thirties to a 12-year-old, Twomey has been associated with Cork Penny Dinners since childhood -- her father was also a volunteer there.

"On Christmas Eve we lay the tables. By 7am on Christmas morning the chefs are hard at work making fresh home-made soup -- last Christmas we served 120 dinners, complete with Christmas crackers.

"I'm there by 8.30am and we'll be whipping cream, getting the bread rolls laid out on the tables, and generally preparing for the meal.

"The dinners are sponsored by the River Lee Hotel for the day, so the chef comes over to us here on Little Hanover Street.

"The hotel sends stuffed turkey and ham and may bring the vegetables as well.

"They make the most beautiful apple pies and we'll have those, along with several Christmas puddings donated by members of the public and by restaurants and bakeries such as Ballymaloe House, Cloudberries Restaurant in Brown Thomas and the Vienna Woods hotel.

"There's a lovely festive atmosphere -- we'll always have music, there will be CDs playing, there will be a bit of a sing-song and maybe a waltz or two.

"Everyone gets a Christmas card and a gift. It will be sensible stuff like hats, gloves, underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, combs, socks, sweets, and razors for men.

"We'd hope to have finished serving by about 2pm or 2.30pm to allow our volunteers to go home.

"In previous years we'd have had people who perhaps have a drink or drug problem that has gone out of control.

"Now, however, we have people from all walks of life. Many of the people we deal with have lost jobs and homes -- we get families and elderly people in, people who are struggling to pay bills.

"The majority of people we see are people who are struggling, for example through losing their jobs, or they could be students who are finding the going difficult.

"If people only knew this was happening in this country it would probably encourage the Government to come up with better solutions to the economic crisis. It's very bad altogether."

* Cork Penny Dinners at Little Hanover Street, Cork, currently serves more than 1,000 meals a week compared to about 150 meals a week two years ago.

Tel: 021 4275604

Email: mail@, visit:


Liz Griffin in the Simon Community kitchen with other volunteers.




The crumpled gift wrappings and the remnants of a festive Christmas dinner will have been cleared away in homes all over Ireland by the time Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Liz Griffin backs her car out of the driveway at her home in Lucan.


By 6pm, Griffin, a mother of two, will be heading towards the Simon Community base at Dublin's Capel Street to pick up bags of food, soup and tea for distribution.


"We prepare the food in the kitchen at the base. We'll make soup -- the sandwiches are usually donated or bought, so they'll be ready and in the fridge. We'll have fruit, and hopefully, chocolate," she says.


Liz and her partner will make up one of about three two-person teams who will do the Simon Community Soup Run through the city centre this Christmas Day:


"Each team has different areas of the city centre to cover. You could get four or five routes on a night, depending on the number of volunteers available.


"Our team usually brings enough tea, soup and sandwiches for about 10 or 15 people.


"The chat is what they love, even if they won't take the soup or sandwich, they love the interaction.


"On Christmas Day we will go out with the usual quantity of food, but there may not be as many people out on the streets, as some will have found shelter over the Christmas period or others may have returned temporarily to their homes for Christmas.


"Christmas Day to them is often the same as any other day -- if anything, the holiday season is a reminder of what they don't have."


* The Simon Communities of Ireland is an affiliation of local Communities across the country.


Tel: 01 671 1606


Email:, visit:

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