Behind the scenes at the Toy Appeal in Knutsford
PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 November 2017
Thousands of deprived children in Cheshire and Manchester wake up to a sack of toys on Christmas morning, thanks to one special Knutsford couple. Rebekka O'Grady met them to find out more.
This Christmas, the average adult will buy 14 presents to be given to family, friends, colleagues and even pets. If you multiply that amount by 1,714, only then can you even begin to imagine the amount of time, effort and money that Chris and Dee Drake have gone through this year to ensure that on Christmas morning, local disadvantaged and vulnerable children will open a sack containing a few of the 24,000 presents the couple have collected in the last 12 months.
The Knutsford couple are the driving force behind the Toy Appeal, a charity which every year - with the help of over 200 volunteers - creates a sack of toys to be given to thousands of children in the Cheshire and Manchester area living in poverty. To date, the couple have provided 4,112 to children, and this December they plan to meet a new target of 3,000 sacks.
Each festive red sack is made specifically for each child, based on their age, gender and any special needs they may have. Working together with social workers, schools and various drop-in centres, Chris and Dee are provided with lists of families who need help to ensure that their child receives something at Christmas. The couple then get to work raising money to buy gifts and setting up drop-off points for those who want to donate toys and presents, before meticulously counting how many toys there are and starting the personalised packing process.
‘I am really proud of it. I can’t believe how far it has come. So many people help it to get bigger and better each year – we just love doing it,’ said Dee, who started working on the toy appeal in December 2012, when she and Chris took a sabbatical from work.
‘We began to volunteer at the Lalley Centre in Levenshulme where we met our inspiration, Sister Rita. She did so much there, whether it was making someone a coffee and having a chat, giving advice or running the food bank. She also had a toy appeal and that year we helped her to make 234 sacks. It wasn’t enough, and that was overwhelming to see just how much they were needed.’
After the couple returned to work, they knew they wanted to continue to help Sister Rita so they took the toy appeal over so that they could make it bigger. It relocated to Knutsford and with the help of friends they created 447 sacks in 2013, 770 in 2014, 1,005 in 2015 and 1,900 last year.
‘It’s been a big learning curve and along the way we have improved a lot of things,’ said Dee, who was named winner of the community award at this year’s Inspiring Women awards. ‘In September we get requests from schools and social workers so that we know how many children we are collecting for. Three times a year we have a massive toy sort out to count how many we have, sort them into categories and buy and collect if we need any more. We always count before the packing day so that we know we won’t run out and every child will get a sack.’
Each sack contains eight items. When packing, the presents are carefully selected so as to be personalised for the recipient but always contain the same type of things: a main present costing between £8-£15 appropriate to their age, a stocking filler, an arts or crafts item to encourage creativity, a sports item so the child can be active, a board game to help families spend time together, two books and a teddy bear.
‘We always put a teddy bear in to cuddle, as not all children get cuddles,’ said Dee. ‘There are also a few sacks each year created for children with special circumstances. In the past we have had requests for children who are homeless, or those who have lost a parent and are struggling. Special bags are created to cater to them.
‘I would never change that level of personalisation. I want to know who they are, where they are from and whether we helped them last year. If we have helped someone for a few years and they drop off the radar, I will write to the school or social worker to ask why. The personal touch is so important to me; it’s what makes it special.’
Although Chris and Dee are the driving force behind the appeal, it wouldn’t be possible without the community and volunteers who come together to help. From van drivers to press officers and social media managers, everyone has their own role to help ensure it all happens, year after year.
Dee added: ‘It’s like a military operation but it has to be otherwise it wouldn’t get done. As much as Chris and I started and run it, this is a massive community effort and it’s down to everyone involved that it happens, especially as we still work full-time. We have all sorts of people helping.
‘The volunteers will gather at a base in Knutsford on one date in December to pack the sacks before they are dropped off at 93 locations starting with various schools, centres then hospitals.
‘Volunteers with children appreciate that their own children are blessed. It brings it home that some families don’t have what we have. Chris and I don’t have children, so these are our kids now, the thousands of children who open these presents on Christmas morning. I put the same level of care into each sack as if the child was my own.’
To find out how you can help or donate a present visit www.thetoyappeal.com for more information.