Kathy Donaghy: 'Shoebox Appeal recalls real spirit of Christmas - giving'
We packed the toothbrushes first, then folded the wash cloths and laid them beside the small bars of soap. Note pads, small diaries, pencils and markers followed. Small toy cars and a few packets of jellies were the last to go in before we closed the lids of the festively wrapped boxes.
Like thousands of families around the country, we got involved in this year's Shoebox Appeal, organised by the charity Team Hope. All you have to do is find an empty shoebox, wrap it in Christmas paper and fill it with gifts for a boy or girl aged between two and 14, attach €4 and bring it to a local drop-off. In many cases, including ours, that's the local school.
Since 2014, the number of shoeboxes filled has increased by 100,000. Last year 264,636 boxes were delivered to children living in poverty in 13 countries, including Albania and Congo. This year the target is 280,000. So far this year, 1,700 schools, over 350 businesses, churches and groups, along with numerous youth organisations and individual families, have signed up.
The whole enterprise costs very little in monetary terms and just a little of your time. As we wrapped and filled the boxes I couldn't help but think about the little hands that would open them. The items we'd packed were probably the only gifts they'd get this Christmas, or all year.
For many families, the annual shoebox appeal has become a ritual that heralds the start of the Christmas period. In an age when shops crank up the pressure to buy earlier - Santa arrived in our local shopping centre last weekend - it's a shining example of non-commercialism.
Team Hope is unashamedly about bringing joy to kids living in poverty overseas. It presents parents with an opportunity to talk about issues like child poverty in a way that kids can easily understand.
And it provides a feel-good factor for everyone involved - including parents.
But not everyone's a fan. On social media, some dissented to the fact that their school was buying into the shoebox appeal. Some objected to its overtly Christian message and its former links with the evangelical group Samaritan's Purse (it broke all links with Samaritan's Purse some years ago). Others felt it was going against the development message of "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime". Others simply felt it was an exercise in making parents feel better about indulging their own kids' Christmas wishes.
Team Hope says in its literature that it's a Christian charity; that it teaches children to share, as well as bringing joy, hope and excitement to vulnerable children. When you watch some of the videos of the children opening the boxes - they're on the charity's website - the joy is evident.
Maybe some people are happier giving money that can be spent locally and they can still do that. But what's so attractive about Team Hope is that it taps into people's desire to feel a part of something bigger when it comes to giving.
To know that the box you've hand-packed will be opened by a child thousands of kilometres away does give a feel-good factor. That's why it's so popular.
Maybe giving for its own sake should be enough and we shouldn't need this warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we wrap a box with our kids. But the end result is hundreds of thousands of boxes of gifts for children who are delighted to get them.
As a parent, I welcome an opportunity to talk to my kids about the fact that many young people their own age live in poverty not just in far-flung countries but in this country too. Sitting down to wrap and pack a shoebox is the perfect chance to take the time and have these conversations and answer questions too. It's not about assuaging parental guilt or giving licence to parents to give in to their kids' every desire for Christmas either. Not in my house anyway, nor I suspect in most.
At a time when Christmas is being hijacked by imported ideas like Black Friday to get us to believe we're saving hundreds of euro on big ticket items, the shoe box seems like a humble reminder of what it's all about: giving.