Why volunteering at Christmas benefits us all

It’s all about joy and family at this time of year, but if you’re alone or homeless, Christmas Day sharpens the acute lack of belonging. It’s never been more important to support initiatives providing a warm welcome and a shared meal – and all the good that comes from that… Sue Quinn looks at the positive effects of Christmas volunteering on vulnerable people and volunteers.

Why volunteering at Christmas benefits us all

For many of us, Christmas is a time of joy, abundance and celebration: of twinkling lights, feasting with loved ones and presents under the tree. But for anyone who’s lonely and vulnerable, living with poverty or homelessness, it can be isolated and full of sadness – or it would be without people dedicated to bringing a little sparkle to their day.

Charities, community organisations, churches and other groups around the UK, supported by armies of volunteers, will spend Christmas Day providing free hot meals, a warm place to eat, gifts and companionship to countless thousands of people in need. And it can transform their lives.

Ray of light

Scott, from Ipswich, knows what a difference it can make having somewhere to go on Christmas Day. The first year he experienced homelessness occurred over the festive period and he felt so miserable he tried to sleep through the big day to block everything out.

Last year, however, he enjoyed lunch at Lyndon House, an accommodation service in Ipswich run by the Salvation Army. “We had a Christmas dinner, and the chaplain visited,” Scott says. “We had a quiz and games and the staff sat with us. I got to see my son, and we kept back some presents so he could open them with me. It was brilliant. In fact, it was the most enjoyable Christmas Day I’ve ever had, being around people I call my friends.”

Scott’s dinner was one of 4,200 served by the Salvation Army last Christmas to people in need. “It could be a family living in one of our Lifehouses who haven’t got a functioning kitchen or the energy to heat their home on Christmas Day, or a single person who is homeless,” says Major Jo Moir.

The organisation expects demand to rise this year as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite. “It’s had a big impact on all the people we serve,” says Major Moir. “We’re expecting Christmas to be a big struggle for even more people this year.”

A pile of wrapped Christmas presents
Opening presents together makes Christmas Day feel special


"The cost of living crisis has had a big impact... We’re expecting Christmas to be a big struggle for even more people this year" - Jo Moir, Salvation Army

More than a hot meal

Crisis, the homeless charity, serves free hot meals on Christmas Day at its  centres across the country, as well its hotel in London. “Crisis at Christmas began in the 1970s because a group of dedicated volunteers saw the reality of life on the streets and decided it was intolerable,” explains Michael Phillips, head of volunteering at Crisis. “They provided people with much-needed respite from the trauma and indignity of homelessness at Christmas, and the service has been going ever since.”

It’s more than just a meal, with free haircuts and physiotherapy available in some locations, as well as advice on housing, benefits and education. Christmas dinner can be a pathway to something better.

A Christmas place setting
The chance to sit down for a Christmas dinner can be a life-changing opportunity


Care beyond care

Some charities fill a gap that few of us know about, like The Christmas Dinner project, founded in 2013 by Lemn Sissay OBE, which aims to give young people from the state care system a memorable Christmas.

Last year, 1,500 care leavers aged 18-25 sat down to enjoy a festive meal, open presents and play games. None of the guests has a family to go to, and would otherwise be alone. “The main job of these dinners is to generate a sense of a happy family Christmas,” says Simon Ruding, chief executive of The Gold From The Stone Foundation, which supports the project.

It might be just one day in the year, he says, but it can change people’s lives: “The transformational aspect is the seeding of positive memories… so Christmas isn’t associated with loneliness. And they remember that people really do care.”

“These dinners are about positive memories and remembering that people really do care” - Simon Ruding, The Gold From The Stone Foundation

Helping out at Christmas

Francesca Baker is a 36-year-old communications consultant from London. She started volunteering on Christmas Day in 2016 while recovering from anorexia. “As I got stronger I realised I didn’t want to be around food all day at Christmas,” she explains. “A few hours of volunteering was a diversion.” She found the experience so rewarding, she has volunteered every Christmas since, at meals organised by charities including The Salvation Army, Ashford Vineyard Church and Hackney Night Shelter.

Francesca still has time to celebrate on the day. “I usually do only a few hours of volunteering, so I get to spend time with my family too.” This year she’ll be doing it again: “It reminds me how lucky I am to have so much love in my life,” she says. “And I can do a small bit to spread that love.”

"Volunteering reminds me how lucky I am to have love in my life” - Francesca Baker, London

How you can help

The following charities are looking for people to volunteer on Christmas Day in a range of different ways, from greeting guests to helping with food prep.

  • The Salvation Army
    Visit salvationarmy.org.uk and search for ‘volunteer’.
  • Crisis
    Visit crisis.org.uk and search for ‘volunteer’.
  • Re-engage
    Volunteers are needed for the community Christmas call companion service, to telephone a vulnerable older person regularly for a chat throughout the festive season. Visit reengage.org.uk.
  • The Christmas Dinner project
    Visit goldfromthestone.org.uk to find a volunteering opportunity near you.

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