Crisis at Christmas 2014

I would like to reiterate the importance of not judging a book by its cover. Over time, a book may become tattered on the outside, but what is on the inside can still be incredible.

Every year people discuss the “True meaning of Christmas”. They say that it is a time for celebration and togetherness. But what about those who don’t have anybody to celebrate with? For so many people around the world Christmas is spent sitting in a doorway or roaming the streets, relying on the kindness of strangers who have a handful of loose change to spare. I cannot imagine how terrible a life like this must be, especially at Christmas time, when everything is decorated with glittering decorations and the streets are buzzing with shoppers getting into the “Christmas spirit”. So this year I decided I would so something a bit closer to what Christmas is really about.

Crisis at Christmas is an event run in the last week of December by the charity Crisis, who work all year round helping homeless people. At Christmas they aim to welcome roughly four thousand guests into their shelters. Here they are fed, given new clothes and, in the centres for people sleeping rough,  they are given a place to sleep. They also have the opportunity to seek advice or counselling, medical help and participate in various games and activities. It costs only £21.62 to give one homeless person a place at Crisis, so I made it my goal to raise £216.20, enough to give ten people the opportunity to experience Christmas. I started up a ‘Just Giving’ page, passed a sponsorship form around my friends and held a bake sale in school. Thanks to everybody’s generosity (and my persistent pestering) I ended up raising £709.12; three times my goal!

This amazing event takes place all across London, Edinburgh and Newcastle, so on the 24th December I flew to London, simultaneously excited but terrified, to volunteer. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the shelter for my first shift on Christmas Day and had no idea that it would end up being the best Christmas I’d ever had. There was an atmosphere of excitement within the shelter; the guests were playing board games with the volunteers and looking forward to their three course Christmas dinner in the evening. I spent this Christmas doing Karaoke, carol singing and chatting to guests as well as doing manual things in order for the centre to run smoothly, like cleaning and taking out rubbish. I loved every second.

I spent a week volunteering with Crisis and was excited to see what each shift would bring. There wasn’t really any such thing as an ‘average day’ at the shelter. You could be doing anything from listening to the bands who came in to perform, serving dinners, even cleaning toilets. What I personally enjoyed the most was interacting with the guests. They were incredibly grateful to the volunteers and fun to spend time with. One of the guests nicknamed me ‘The Voice’ after the karaoke carol singing and soon everybody was calling me by this nickname. They loved to laugh and joke around, it was so uplifting to be in their company.

People warned me before I left that the homeless may be hostile, violent or rude, but I didn’t meet anybody fitting this negative stereotype. If I learned anything from this experience it is that homeless people are very unfairly and inaccurately judged. People seem to forget that people without homes are still people; even the term ‘the homeless’ is dehumanizing. I met some incredible, talented, fascinating people. One man I made friends with had moved from Lisle, dreaming of studying Biology at a university in London. He is an incredibly talented musician and looking to find work playing the piano in bars to earn a living and save up enough to study. I told him that I am studying French, so we mainly spoke in French as he said it was comforting and reminded him of home. I felt very blessed that I could use my skills to comfort him. Another man I met loved to paint and imitate the work of Picasso. He proudly showed me his work, which was outstanding. These are only two of the many inspirational people I met. Since coming home, so many people have said, “I’m sure you feel very lucky to have all that you do”, and of course I feel blessed to have all that I have, but I feel more blessed that I had the opportunity to share my Christmas with these incredible people.

I knew that volunteering for Crisis would be a challenging experience, but did not anticipate the most difficult part of the week. Spending eight to ten hours a day with both the guests in the shelter and the volunteers, meant that friendships were formed very quickly. Saying goodbye and coming home after my last shift was the hardest thing that I had to do the entire week. Hugs were exchanged and tears shed. I like to think that I touched the lives of some people there and I know for sure that they touched mine.

I would love to see more events like this taking place in Northern Ireland and strongly encourage anybody even thinking of volunteering for Crisis or a similar charity to go for it. I will certainly be volunteering with Crisis again next year as I cannot think of a better way to spend my Christmas.

Joanna Watterson

Year 14

Crisis at Christmas 2014