Can you imagine having to choose between putting your heating on or buying your child a Christmas present? Would you go without food so your children could eat?
That’s the dilemma faced by dozens of families in and around Kirkcaldy this year over the festive season.
With benefits changes kicking in last week and new systems taking weeks to sort out, people are being left with no income, and its families like these who are being helped out by the brave and caring staff and volunteers at the Cottage Family Centre in Templehall.
For the fifth year running the centre, which provides support to families with pre-school children in crisis, has organised its annual food and toy collection to help hundreds facing Christmas on the breadline over the festive period.
A total of 180 families in the town with around 500 children will receive a food pack including a steak pie, fresh fruit and veg, a butcher’s pack with sausage, bacon and mince, and perishable and non-perishable food to do them for around ten days.
In addition there are pyjamas, a selection box and toys for the children up to teenagers.
A mammoth effort goes into preparing the donations for the families needing them, with Pauline Buchan, service manager and Lisa Hitchcock, the Cottage centre’s receptionist now dab hands at preparing spread sheets for each family’s requirements.
Since the Cottage began appealing for donations back in October it has been inundated with offers of help and support, as well as donations from individuals, businesses, multi-national companies and local organisations.
Delivering between three and five cratefuls of food plus bags of clothes and toys to 180 families is run like a military operation.
The Cottage staff work on a tight schedule to ensure everything is prepared for delivery on Tuesday, with the toy donations the first to be sorted out in the weeks before, followed by clothing, non-perishable and finally perishable foods just before they are delivered.
On Monday morning the process was in full flow, with a small army of volunteers packing up the fruit and veg in one room of the centre and a hive of activity going on elsewhere in the building sorting through the final donations of clothing and non perishable foods.
“We worked all day Sunday and about ten volunteers were on the go from early doors until around 10 last night making sure everything was in place,” said Lisa.
“Different families receive different packages, with some just needing food as the social work department does its own toy collection, so it’s not as straightforward as it seems. Then you have to get the right sized clothes for the children in each family, which may not go according to their ages, so there’s a lot of organising to be done.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but when you hear people telling you that you are Christmas Angels and that you’ve saved Christmas for them, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Sarah Emerson was helping out with her children Jake (13), Sam (11), Katy (9) and Ruby (7). She said: “This is the second time we have come along to help. I think it is really important to make the children realise how fortunate they are, and also to give something back to the local community.
“I work in social work and I know that Pauline and her staff do a tremendous job all year round, so I just wanted to do my bit to help.”
And on the day itself the well-oiled machine rolled into action with everyone at their stations packing the crates, loading them in order into the vans and delivering them to homes across the Langtoun.
One 33-year-old mum of two children aged nine and six years described the Cottage service as “a lifesaver.”
“Both myself and my partner were working, although I am disabled, but I fell ill and haven’t been able to work. My partner is working but because we were receiving no other help, all the money goes on rent, bills and food,” she explained.
“Even then we struggle and often go without so the children can eat. We have had to use the foodbank when things got desperate. Luxuries don’t exist and we were really dreading Christmas this year.
“This help from the Cottage has saved us from a miserable Christmas because there was just no way we could afford food and presents for the children. I just can’t thank them enough.”
Gordon Brown MP, who has supported the appeal from the outset, dropped into the centre to see how things were going and praised the staff and volunteers for their hard work.
“I know how hard the staff have worked to make this happen and hundreds of children and their families in Kirkcaldy will have a much brighter Christmas thanks to the Cottage Centre,” he said.
An army of volunteers
I volunteered to go along to do what little I could to help out on Tuesday. Having written stories on the Cottage for years, I decided it was time to take action, so dark and early on Tuesday morning, I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in with the many other dedicated volunteers, many of whom have helped out for many years.
Tuesday was delivery day for the finished crateloads, and after an hour loading up the final perishable foodstuffs to the crates, they were ready to be delivered by Fife Council’s building services workers who gave three vans and two vans and squads from the Community Payback service in Fife.
It was a case of all hands to the pump, and I worked alongside friends and family of centre staff, chairman of the Cottage committee, Marilyn Livingstone, Councillors Neil Crooks and Judy Hamilton and others, packing, loading the vans and doing whatever we could.
At one point it was discovered that a few clothing bags had not been added, so myself and another volunteer put them into his car and went around the addressed delivering them to very grateful families.