Christmas, with its focus on rampant spending and the celebration of excess, can be an incredibly isolating and anxiety-inducing time for those struggling to meet even their most basic needs – let alone the food-filled tables and present-laden trees of an M&S advert.
For those raising children and feeling the stark effects of the cost of living crisis, the expectation to deliver that consumer vision of Christmas makes it a daunting time. And so for many, it can feel as if there’s not been much light in the darkness so this festive season. But every so often, there is the metaphorical beam that pierces that gloom, something that restores our faith in human nature and gives cause for a glimmer of hope.
The Family Fun Day at the Apple Tree Centre in Crawley on December 16 was one such occasion. Sponsored by West Sussex County Council and in conjunction with UK Harvest, a charity based in Chichester, this was a pre-Christmas celebration open to all and totally free of charge – even a free Metrobus shuttle to and from the event ensuring everyone could join in. Crawley, as one of the most deprived areas in West Sussex, has many families who are eligible for benefits related free school meals and, as a result, extra help in the holidays, funded by the Department of Education through the Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme.
Sign up for free holiday fun
In what can only be described as a Christmas miracle of organisation so close to the big day, WSCC and UK Harvest brought together a wide range of community groups and children’s clubs, many of which were offering free courses over the holidays to families on benefits. But the team from the council, led by HAF coordinator Steph Baxter, were also on the lookout for families who either did not know they were eligible for a HAF code or that their code entitled them to free holiday fun. Steph’s familiarity with the local area is awesome, as is her knowledge of the vacant places at nearby clubs. Along with her team, she manned the welcome desk all day, handing out fun free gifts to the children whilst also being a mine of information to their families.
Scheduled as it was, at the beginning of an often dauntingly-long holiday for working parents, many families were able to find play and activity spaces for their children for the following week.
A day packed with opportunity
And the day totally fulfilled the promise of the posters and the publicity. The main stage hosted a variety of acts, literally kicking off with Crawley’s KC Dance and Gym group which was followed by a UK Harvest cooking demo. It was wonderful to see a couple of AudioActive Live Music sets, the result of their workshop sessions going on all day. West Sussex Music also provided entertainment, as did the YES project, with street dance sessions, backed by DanceHub CIC. All these exciting organisations were offering free holiday courses, including lunch, to kids with free school meals.
Tearing our eyes from the stage, there were the workshops throughout the hall with so much on offer – from soft archery, fencing, Whizz Kids footie, taekwondo and hapkido to puppet making, nail and face painting, and of course AudioActive creative sound sessions. Other clubs, not involved in workshops, had taken ‘awareness stands’, promoting their activities and encouraging the children to join the Guides, the Junior Adventure Group, arts and crafts groups and even a Maths Club! Some might think maths a bit of a stretch when it’s been sold as a fun day, but, judging by the numbers of happy looking kids clustered around the table, it probably was!
The West Sussex Waste Prevention Stand abounded with brilliant and exciting ideas for re-using waste, and the Crawley Free Shop was surely mis-named as it offered not only free shopping but also finance workshops, skills for the work place, support for job applications and navigating websites to name but a few of its services.
Free food, wood-fired pizzas and firemen
There were children and families everywhere. UK Harvest had a lost children stand and biscuit decorating stall, as well as running a café providing coffees, teas, soft drinks and great cakes and snacks. Venturing outside into the less than inviting damp December day, another great team from UK Harvest – the Nourish Hub from its base near Shepherds Bush in London – were manning the pizza oven and producing hundreds of delicious wood-fired pizzas until the last minute. As with the café, it was all free and nobody minded the rather damp wait in the queue.
Of course, no children’s fun day would be complete without a fire engine turning up with its team of fire officers to supervise all the fun of make believe. Similarly, the local police arrived and stoically, like the fire service and Nourish Hub, spent the day in the rain.
More help needed
With hundreds of children and their families joining in over the day, eating together, playing together and without having to worry about what any of it cost, this was a really inspiring day that helped reignite that glimmer of hope in these often gloomy times. But it was also a chilling reminder that while some of us might enjoy an excessive Christmas, many families are incredibly hard pressed, despite the support offered by the Holiday Activity and Food (HAF) programme.
At a time when life is getting harder for so many in this country, the Government should reconsider its extension of such a vital programme, given the relatively low cost of its delivery, its clear and current need, and how, in places like Crawley, it helped come close to recapturing the true spirit of Christmas – away from the pressures posed by advertisers.