How to give a child a Christmas with The Toy Appeal
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 November 2019
Dee Drake and her husband Chris have gifted more than 16,000 children some Christmas magic.
My children are lucky. They are safe, they are warm, they never have to go hungry and they always have a Christmas Day filled with gifts and plenty more. Not every child in Cheshire has this kind of Christmas - something that Dee and Chris Drake have set about changing.
'When I was 35 Chris and I learned that we couldn't have children,' Dee says. 'We just threw ourselves into our careers but, five years later, as I turned 40, I felt totally burned out. We just kept asking - what's the point? We decided to take a short time out to step back, rest and re-evaluate our lives. Within three days I was bored rigid!'
Rather than book a cruise, or take up a new hobby, or binge on box sets, Dee decided to find a local charity where she thought her skill-set might be of some use.
'I thought maybe I could look at their IT systems, or help people with their CVs to get them back into work. I ended up in Collyhurst, at the Lalley Centre. It's a tiny charity, but in a very deprived area of Manchester. They feed, clothe and support people in need in the area - and it's so needed. It was a real eye-opener, that this could all be happening just 40 minutes from our comfortable home in Knutsford. I went along to see them in November, and they were starting to make up toy sacks to gift to local children who would otherwise receive nothing at all at Christmas. They managed to put together 237 sacks, all from donations. It was heart-warming, but also heart-breaking.
'In January we both went back to work, but kept wondering what we could do, going forward, to support them. I realised that even this quite small thing took up a lot of their resource, so offered to take it over for them.'
Dee has a wide network of friends in Knutsford and nearby, and thought that perhaps local mums would be a good place to start looking for donations. She wasn't wrong.
'That first Christmas, in 2013, we sent 500 sacks of toys to the charity. The following year we sent 800. By 2015 we knew we could help other small charities with the same need, so established The Toy Appeal, which is now a registered charity. We're growing every year, but have to be so careful never to over-commit - we can't promise a child a Christmas and then not deliver. We can't give a child a Christmas sack one year, then be unable to do the same the following year.'
This year Dee and her ever-increasing band of helpers will be filling 5,000 Christmas sacks, for children aged nought to 17, living in the more poverty-stricken areas of Manchester, Cheshire, the Wirral and as far away as Blackpool, not to mention the tiny, often unseen, pockets of poverty in places we assume all residents are 'comfortably off', including Knutsford and Altrincham. Dee works with 130 schools, foodbanks, children's homes and social workers to assemble the lists of children who will be gifted a sack.
'Schools will reach out - they know what children are going hungry, who don't have clean clothes or clothes that fit, whose families just need help. Women's refuges too - the children there are always scared that Santa won't be able to find them, they're not allowed to tell anybody where they are as their mothers have fled from abusive relationships and need to stay safe.'
Dee and Chris still work full time, ensuring that every penny raised by their efforts goes towards gifts for the children that need them.
'The sacks all have eight gifts in and are carefully put together for boys or girls in each age range, year by year. This way we are sure that a child aged seven who received a sack last year won't receive the same gift again this year, now they are eight.
'In each sack there is a main gift - Lego, for example, or a skateboard. Then they all also receive a 'stocking filler', something fun but not silly; an arts and crafts related game or toy - we know that toys that involved creativity, from art to building a working 'volcano', can really help children with anger-issues; two books; a sports-related item to encourage outdoor play; a board game; and children up to age 10 receive a cuddly toy - it's heartbreaking to know that some of children never even get cuddles.'
For this year's 5,000 sacks, that's 40,000 items. 40,000! Where do they come from? Where are they kept?
'We spend £25 per child. Around 30% of the gifts are donated and the rest we buy wholesale. We accept pre-loved books and cuddly toys, which we wash first, but all toys have to be new, in their packaging. We reach out to schools and businesses for donations and have drop-off points all over the area. I visit schools and lead an assembly about what we do.
'In primary schools we're careful, talking about children who have had a bad year and need a little cheering up with a gift. In the secondary schools we don't need to worry about Santa, so can be more clear on what we do and why. I have had children come up and thank me for helping other children, and one little boy asked if I was Santa's cousin. That made me cry.'
As The Toy Appeal grows, word spreads and, Dee says, things get easier.
'I was giving a talk in Knutsford, and a man came over and offered us free warehouse space in Crewe, which saves us such a lot of money. We have other companies who gift us articulated lorries to bring everything from there to Egerton FC in Knutsford, for when we do the main sack pack. A friend in Hale organises a ball for us, which last time raised £40,000. Others donate the catering to feed the 500 volunteers who come and help pack the sacks over the weekend we do it. Every penny we raise goes on toys, storage and distribution, nothing else.'
Dee and Chris, along with their hundreds of volunteers and every one of us who donate even a single toy, perform a Christmas miracle every year. Santa's cousin? More like a modern-day St. Nicholas, I would say.
How can you help?
The Toy Appeal works all year round to fund the purchase of toys and collect donations of toys, books and cuddlies from those who want to help.
If you have top quality toys to donate, you can drop off many locations, including:
The Mobile Agents
Tony & Guy
Cottons Hotel & Spa
Egerton Football Club
Hal Whitakker Toyshop
The Lambing Shed
Mr Simms Sweet Shoppe Tony & Guy
Altrincham, Hale, Bowdon & Sale
BPS Family Law
Holt Business Solutions
Ian Macklin & Co
MLP Law Ltd
The Stamford Pub
Toni & Guy
Visit the website for more drop-off points. You can also donate via the website, with JustGiving. If you want to volunteer your time, or even organise your own fundraising or toy-collection event, email firstname.lastname@example.org to ask how.