Christmas presents for children of refugees and asylum seekers were among almost 1,000 gift sacks delivered to children in Swindon this week.
More than 170 volunteers from Swindon Toy Appeal, run by the town’s churches, have been working for weeks to buy, wrap and label presents for youngsters from low-income families all over the town.
A £1,500 grant from Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Welcome Fund, set up to help all refugees and asylum seekers who want to make Wiltshire and Swindon their home, funded gift sacks for 79 young people from all over the world. Almost half fled Afghanistan in the summer in the wake of the Taliban takeover.
Dawn Prosser, a member of the organising committee, said the grant has helped the appeal, which is in its fifth year, to cope with steady rise in referrals from schools, churches, charities and Swindon Borough Council.
“Two years ago we had 350 referrals, last year it was 750 and this year it is 930,” she added.
“We didn’t have enough toys donated but people have donated financially and we had some money left over from last year thankfully.
"Because of what we got from Wiltshire Community Foundation we were able to buy toys for the children of the refugees, which has meant we can help more families, so we are very grateful.”
Wiltshire Community Foundation joint chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “This is the first grant made from the Welcome Fund and we are delighted that it will truly make these children feel welcome by including them in our Christmas celebrations. We are very thankful that our donors’ generosity has allowed us to share this spirit of Christmas with young people who are feeling so uncertain about their future.”
The appeal has been working with the Harbour Project in Swindon to make sure refugee children are not forgotten. “The parents were really excited about their children getting a new toy, it’s something really special for them. We were able to give them the three main present toys, the soft toy and a book,” she said.
Dawn Prosser said: “We also bought each Afghan family ludo because it is the national game in Afghanistan. I’ve been told that everyone plays it there because is nowhere to really go for people, so they go to each others’ houses to play ludo.”
Organisers have raised £5,600 and used £4,000 left over from fundraising last year to cope with the demand.
The sacks, each containing three specially chosen presents, a soft toy or doll as well as books and other stocking fillers, were distributed to schools, charities and churches, as well as social services.
Mrs Prosser said although it is a church initiative, people from all over the town took part. “The volunteers are made up of all sorts of people, people from churches, from other faiths and companies have sent staff in to volunteer,” she said. “It’s all across the board and that’s what I like about it, it has been a real Swindon community event.
“One volunteer was here helping choose the presents because her friend got a parcel last year and she was completely overwhelmed because her daughter got exactly what she wanted.”
Planning began in August, with work beginning in earnest in September. “From October it has been full on,” said Mrs Prosser.
Every organisation was sent a referral form for each child it nominated, asking for their name, age, clothes size and a wish-list of presents. Toys were been donated at more than a dozen drop-off points across the town and stored at Gateway Church in Stonehill Green.
Once the toys were sorted, volunteers were assigned families and they chose appropriate presents. Teenagers were given £20 Amazon vouchers.
The sacks were then labelled with the child’s name and sorted for volunteers to deliver.
Mrs Prosser said the rise in demand was partly down to the economic fallout of the pandemic. “Some of the reason we are getting busier is because more people are aware of what we provide,” she said.
“But there are also a lot more people falling into poverty because of the difficult economic circumstances after what we’ve been through over the last two years. There are more people with poor mental health and a lot of families have broken down. We’ve never had to think about that many people before.”
Having a wish-list helps the choosers find the right present for each child, even if they have to go the extra mile.
Mrs Prosser said: “One 11-year-old wanted to play the ukulele so we went to the music shop and bought one for him.
“It would be lovely to be there and see all the children open their presents, just to see their reaction but we obviously we can’t. It is just nice to think they’ll have something special to open.”
More information about the community foundation’s Welcome Fund can be found at wiltshirecf.org.uk