As first semester draws to a close, many students will be travelling home for Christmas to spend time with loved ones. We’re bombarded with this narrative as soon as December begins and every shopping centre around the country is garishly decorated with tinsel and giant baubles.
On TV you’ll find this year’s John Lewis ad reminding you that Christmas is a special time for friends and family and buying overpriced tree decorations. But for many people, Christmas can be a lonely time, especially when they are faced with constant reminders that they should be spending it with family. Care-leavers — those who after the age of eighteen have officially left the care of the state — are one of these marginalised populations.
I talked to Emma Lewis-Kalubowila. Emma is involved with Lemn Sissay’s ‘Manchester Christmas Dinner’ project for care-leavers as a Steering Group Member. As a care-leaver himself, the University of Manchester Chancellor Lemn Sissay wanted to set up a project that would make Christmas day one of happiness, luxury and fun for the fifty guests they seat in Manchester.
“One of the really difficult things about state care” Emma explains, “is that you are only looked after till you are 18, but I didn’t stop getting looked after by my parents when I was 18. Working at a uni you realise that the vast majority of people are supported still well into their 20s.” For care-leavers, it’s different. Some are supported by friends and other networks, but for many, they find themselves completely self-reliant.
“Some will be on their own on Christmas day, we even work with some care-leavers who are unfortunately homeless. It’s not an ideal situation any time of the year, but around Christmas it becomes more apparent.”
Perhaps it’s the Christmas spirit everyone tries to get into, with the giving and receiving of presents on Christmas day we are astutely aware of what we are financially capable to buy, and how lucky we are. This Christmas spirit in many cases gets carried into charitable work. The Christmas Dinner is completely donation funded. Right from the taxi rides, to the activities available such as a nail bar and gaming station, to the three-course meal itself and after dinner film.
“The Man United Foundation kindly donates football shirts for the guests, as well as L’oreal and the Co-Operative donating goodies,” Emma explains. “There’s even an Amazon wish-list available that anyone can purchase presents for the guests from.”
But the organisers want to steer away from the idea that the event is a “charity case”.
“Lemn is careful about the idea of the dinner, it’s not a soup kitchen, in fact, we don’t even have soup on the menu because of this. We make sure there is no bleach smell to the room, as we don’t want it to be like a care-home. It’s a day of luxury for the guests, we are recreating a special Christmas with a fun and friendly atmosphere.”
In 2015 we covered a similar story promoting the Christmas Dinner. I asked Emma how far the project has come in these two years, and what had changed.
“There is now about 10 projects across the country,” Emma tells me, “In February 2017, after last years Christmas dinner, a lot of people who were involved came together to write a ‘How To’ guide. Others have picked it up and run with it.” People have been inspired by the dinners and have started doing their own. The Oxford branch had to, unfortunately, stop running their event, but it was picked up by care-leavers in the area and reintroduced.
“There are about 450 guests now all across the country!” The growth in the two years is quite impressive. “I keep seeing on twitter other events that have been inspired by us. They’re popping up all over the country, as long as they follow the ethos it’s positive.”
So how do we get involved with such a worthwhile project?
Any way you can, advises Emma: “Anyone can get involved, we need people for fundraising, students have been great with Christmas socials in the past and have collected donations for the cause. We’ve got the Amazon gift list, you can volunteer in advance (however the day is now full) and volunteering for clean up afterwards.”
“We could do with help with social media as well- I’m in charge of the Twitter and Facebook for the event but I’m having a baby next year so we will need help! Even people making videos to get the message out there.” It just shows, even if you can’t donate, there is so much more you can bring to helping out.
Further information can be found at http://blog.lemnsissay.com/.
To buy a care-leaver a christmas gift (prices start at £2), you can find the amazon wish list here.