As we get caught up in festive commercial chaos and sometimes lose sight of the real meaning of the season, Parental Choice talks to Helen Shepard, a fundraiser with the international charity Railway Children, about giving at Christmas.
‘Halloween costumes have been discarded and bonfire night fireworks have fizzled out so it’s time to rush head first into the festive frenzy of Christmas. And for most of us that means one thing – shopping. We surround ourselves with lists, agonise over buying things for people we hardly ever see, desperately search for the perfect present – and tell ourselves all the time that we are embracing the joy of giving.
As a parent, the urge to give your child everything they need is natural. We can’t fight it, so more often than not we go with it. The difficulty, especially at this time of year, is separating what they really need from what they want and for most of us, finding an acceptable balance between the two. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit some of Railway Children’s projects in Africa and meet some of the families we work with there. The stark contrast between my life here in the UK and the difficulties faced by the people I met was shocking. And as a mum to two children it made me think about what parents facing poverty, homelessness and even starvation are desperately trying to give their children.
I spoke to mothers who were scraping together a living collecting and selling charcoal to restaurants so that they could pay for the uniform and books their children need in order to go to school. For them, giving the gift of knowledge is giving their sons and daughters a future. They know that by enabling their children to learn, they can improve their situation and lift themselves out of poverty rather than facing the terrible hardships their parents have endured.
Our teams in Africa also work with families on the brink of starvation. When parents don’t have any income or access to a supply of food for their children the effects are truly devastating. By giving them the equipment and educating them with the skills to plant and harvest their own crops we are giving them more than just the ability to eat. We can give them a sense of purpose, restore their dignity and let them develop a business selling their crops to others and securing a future for their family.
I was also able to visit children at one of our schools specifically for street children in Tanzania. Our teams there amazed me with their empathy, patience and understanding of the children and what they have been through. Many of the children used the school simply as somewhere safe to sleep – enduring a night on the volatile streets is hardly restful. Others made the most of the informal teaching given, with high hopes of it leading to a better future. Some enjoyed games and activities organised by the staff, reminding me that whatever they had experienced they were still children, with a natural sense of fun. But whether it was for sleep, education or play I realised that the safe school environment was giving all these children the same thing – time and space to do whatever they want or need to.
As a parent, I know my children are very lucky. They do not have, (and will not be getting!), everything they want this Christmas. But having seen parents coping with a very different life in Africa I can hand on heart say that they do have everything they really, truly need. So as I go about my shopping this year I intend to remember and appreciate the things I can give my children that so many simply cannot. I am proud of the difference Railway Children is making to children’s lives around the world and if you want to help us fight for these families we have a range of Happy Future gifts available that can make a big difference. If you choose to send a child to school, buy crops for a family, or provide shelter for a street child, it may be a bit of a cliché, but that is the kind of gift that really does keep on giving.
Have a look at the range on offer at www.railwaychildren.org.uk/shop and have a happy, peaceful Christmas.’
Helen Shepard from the charity Railway Children