Sunday. How I love Sunday. We wake just before ten to catch Radio 4’s finest, and with breakfast in bed relax to the familiar theme tunes that herald our favourite listening. All this before rising to buy flowers on Columbia Road.
This particular Sunday in mid-October seemed no different, until Kirsty Young announced her Desert Island guest Lemn Sissay, writer, playwright and poet. Lemn grew up in care; his graduation from which led to a life that unfolded in a most remarkable way.
The following 45 minutes introduced me to unfamiliar words: care and care leaver. They plucked insistently at a part of my brain hitherto untroubled by the woes of children who in simple terms, have been brought up with the State in-loco parentis. Lemn’s mother was ultimately Margaret Thatcher.
These freshly disrupted brain cells creaked into action. What were the implications of being in care, of having no loved ones, of leaving the institution you call home to fend for yourself? How would one advance into real and functional adulthood without the love, the support networks of relatives and friends that so many of us take for granted? These matters had never caused so much as a ripple on the surface of my thinking until now and I imagined my own children in the same situation. Ouch.
I listened to Lemn Sissay’s Desert Island Discs three times over the following days, something I have never done. I wasn’t just moved by his story, but impressed at his forbearance, his determination, his logic, his talent and most of all, his warmth.
Out came my laptop and I drilled into his website, watched broadcasts and successes, read his poetry and found his projects, of which The Christmas Dinners hit home. These events take place in Manchester, Leeds and Hackney with single intent: no care leaver should be alone at Christmas. Many are transferred from care homes to hostels and B&Bs; some end up on the street. Lemn determines to bring them into a warm and loving environment for Christmas and let them know that the world is not as lonely a place as they might think, that they are as special, as individual, as valid as the next person.
Hackney. A bell sounded in my head. I sat up and found the Hackney Christmas Dinner Group on Facebook, joined and asked what I should do next. I was invited to a meeting in Clapton about two weeks later.
On the evening, FirstBorn happened to be staying with me. Would you like to come to a Christmas Dinner meeting? I asked without further elucidation. She did. We met at the place and introduced ourselves. FirstBorn looked puzzled but without question sat with me on chairs facing a space where someone stood and outlined the various tasks required to create the Hackney Christmas Dinner for Care Leavers.
FirstBorn threw me another puzzled look. Decoration! I whispered. Obligingly she put up her hand and offered to assist with decorations. I volunteered for gifts and donations.
Lemn was chatty, friendly and excited by the tangible goodwill and determination in the room; he is a dynamo of contagious energy, a whirlwind of ideas, of encouragement. He is insistent about his aims; he is very loud and great fun. Our counterparts in the room came from all walks of life; some had grown up in care, others had nothing to do with it but wanted to make a contribution, to be part of this extraordinary event.
The group was divided into responsibilities: volunteer coordination and screening, transport, food, venue organisation, decoration, gifts and so forth. People split into groups to agree on specific responsibilities, on an overall strategy designed to fit with the other strategies so that like well-woven rope, the thing would come together as a single endeavour on the day.
I should add here that my invitation to FirstBorn for that first meeting was understood to have been for a slap up pre-Christmas Christmas Dinner; once her puzzlement evaporated she took the whole thing somewhat heroically in her stride.
The next two months were a blur of activity; everyone worked flat-0ut to bring the Day to seamless fruition. In fulfilling the tasks allocated to me within the gift team, Barside evenings became infrequent (Note Bene: The Christmas Dinner is good for your health).
Together, we secured a huge range of Christmas presents from a wide variety of shops and businesses plus donations from accountants, lawyers and estate agents all of whom warmed to the cause, wanting to provide something of value for a part of society who as for me, had been until now unacknowledged in their thinking.
On Christmas Eve we wrapped presents, for which I was allocated a team of accomplished and friendly elves; financial donations covered the cost of a Tablet for each adult to facilitate their hunt for work, somewhere to live and crucially, to keep in touch with friends and in some cases re-discovered family and new networks.
Courtesy of local businesses they received knitwear for the women, shirts for the men, super-hero T-shirts, fashion accessories, art posters, tableware, restaurant vouchers, cinema tickets, beauty accessories, books, DVDs, festive sweets and chocolate. Some will receive life-coaching sessions, others CV and career advice all donated by specialists.
We sorted the gifts into male and female, wrapped and dropped them into 50 hessian sacks, each tied with a pink or blue ribbon (not very pc but helpful) and adorned with an over-sized name tag.
Food was planned, sourced and produced by a talented local French Chef and event organiser; volunteers transformed the generously donated Hackney restaurant into a shimmering starlit Christmas grotto. There was so much more, achieved by so many people I didn’t get to know because we were busy working towards an immovable deadline. I wish there had been more time.
BB joined in with his inflatable Santa Suit, a Juggling Masterclass for interested parties (many were) and a fire dancing show; others entertained, talked, cajoled and calmed. Our guests were astonished at this Christmas Day like no other and I talked to many – probably not enough. My confidence, which has no problem addressing a radio audience or a room of 300 business people floundered when faced with a group of individuals whose experiences were so alien to me; it was a challenge to sit down and engage with people whose lives had been so much harder to navigate than mine.
One shy young man admitted that he was reluctant to come but pointed to another lone guest that he recognised from college. They were introduced and by the end of the day were inseparable and happy in each others’ company. A girl who arrived alone made friends with three others. I nearly didn’t come she confessed. I was frightened because I didn’t know anyone. I do now. I have new friends. I feel special. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.
People, that did it for me.
Lemn Sissay’s Christmas Dinners are worth their weight in gold. Midnight moments of regret – what have I got myself into? – melted away and I watched our guests bloom, observed them turn from timid strangers into ebullient friends, happy for this extraordinary connection.
Please watch Lemn’s film of the day to see and hear some of the guests from Hackney, Manchester and Leeds. The Wall of Thanks at our venue was peppered with scribbled post-it notes, one of which declared: thank you for this waterfall of joy.
If you want to contribute to next year’s Christmas Dinner, if you want to make a donation that will help Lemn Sissay launch a Christmas Dinner in every town and city across the UK, drop a line to the Facebook page. I am a small cog in one of the most impressive machines I have encountered in 30 years of business, a machine that works seamlessly thanks to an army of talented, impressive, kind people.
You too could make a difference.
Think about it.
© Giovanna Forte.