Mark Richards Education – Charity Work
During my spare time, I regularly volunteer with a charity providing experiences for disabled people. This work is varied and involves considerable teamwork in providing fun activities for participants. In addition, I am heavily involved with maintenance of the charity’s grounds. Also, I regularly lead corporate groups of up to 70 volunteers to undertake maintenance tasks around the site.
I have always enjoyed Christmas and the joy that it brings to children and adults alike. However, I was aware that many Christmas experiences were unobtainable for many disabled children. Consequently, during a conversation between myself and my uncle, we had idea of starting a Santa’s Grotto. Furthermore, this Santa’s Grotto would be targeted specifically at children with profound disabilities.
The proposal was that children from both Special Needs schools and local hospices would be able to visit Santa. Furthermore, they would be able to do so in a highly sensory environment. We soon realised that this was a fantastic opportunity. Consequently, in mid-2010 we recruited a small group of friends to help this become a reality. Our mission was simple…
“To create a highly sensory Santa’s Grotto to enable profoundly disabled children to meet Santa in a safe and stimulating environment. Furthermore, each child should receive a gift. Importantly, there should be no cost whatsoever to the children, carers, schools or hospices involved”
The first stage was to gain permission to use the facilities for the event. Luckily this was granted and we were now in a position where the real planning could begin.
As a group we started brainstorming ideas for the Grotto. First, we discussed what equipment we would need. Secondly, what budget we would set for each child’s gift. We all agreed that the gift was to be a quality item. Consequently we set a (rather large for a free event) budget of £10 per child.
The group had a few contacts within the corporate world. After a few phone calls, we managed to organise a number of Banks to send staff on ‘team building’ days. These people would later prove invaluable during construction of the Grotto. Critically the Banks would pay for all materials used during these team building days.
Santa’s Grotto Year 1
Our core group agreed to dedicate every weekend from late October up to the week of Santa’s Grotto. Therefore, we had a good level of manpower during the setup stage.
Each of us agreed which aspect of the project we would contribute to. I have a personal love of electrics and so agreed to organise the Christmas lights and sound. In addition, I agreed to lead many of the Banker’s volunteer days.
Others within the group agreed to contact the local schools. First, this involved a number of enthusiastic phone calls to determine which children could come. Secondly, the team discussed with school and hospice staff suitable presents to buy.
Soon, we each had a clear idea of what we needed to do and how to achieve it.
In early November-2010, armed with a small amount of money, we visited the local hardware store. 2 Hours later, we left having purchased a trolley full of Christmas lights and tree decorations. Next, we visited the local Christmas tree plantation and arranged delivery of around 20 Christmas trees.
Another member of the group arranged to borrow the local Town Council’s Christmas backdrop and a rocking chair to use as props within Santa’s Grotto.
During mid-November, the Bankers arrived for their team building Days. Fortunately, my employer at the time allowed me time away from work for the project. Consequently, I was able to lead these volunteer days. The Bankers subsequently installed and decorated the trees which they thoroughly enjoyed. Furthermore, they gained a lot from the experience. Indeed many have returned in subsequent years to assist.
The campsite has an aerial runway. As a result, we were able to build a ‘Santa’s Sleigh’ which would fly across the valley as the children arrived. Once decorated with lights, this was extremely effective!
We were keen for the children to have the experience of walking from a central sensory area to a separate Santa’s Grotto built out in the woods. Luckily, the campsite has a small circular cluster of trees that was the perfect place to build Santa’s Grotto. We made a simple frame from 4X2 pine and attached the local council’s backdrop to this. Next, we planted 4 Christmas trees in front and decorated with lights. The remainder of the Christmas trees were planted in the dining room. Furthermore, an open fire created a wonderfully calm but visually stimulating environment.
Finally by the end of the first week of December, we had a grotto!
The first Santa’s Grotto
Santa’s Grotto itself lasted for one week and over 100 children benefited from the experience, it was clear that the event was an overwhelming success and despite everyone being utterly exhausted by the end of the week, we couldn’t wait for December 2011 to arrive!
The first year had been a major success, with many letters of thanks from the schools and hospices. However as with any event, our visitors identified areas that could be improved. We organised a meeting between all of the volunteers and discussed how we would improve the event during the following year. The main problem encountered was that of keeping the children warm whilst at the site, especially when visiting Santa in his Grotto. We soon realised that we would have to build a temporary structure into which we could install some form of heating.
After a considerable effort, we greatly increased funding in the second year. This allowed us to buy yet more lights and resources. Importantly, we managed to source a large quantity of ply and slab wood. Consequently, we were able to build a temporary structure to house Santa whist children visited.
Santa’s Grotto remains the most important event in my year. I am proud to be part of the small, but dedicated group of volunteers who make it happen. We have invited new volunteers to the group to enable us to improve and add more to the event.
Over the last few years we have replaced all of the original consumer quality Christmas lights with professional LED equipment. This has helped to improve reliability, the quality of the display and to reduce electricity consumption by around 75%. At last count, we now install around 45,000 Christmas lights, 2000m of cable and over 30 loudspeakers. We also install over 40 real Christmas trees to add to the overall experience.
This year, I led a group of volunteers in cutting down and transporting over 50 trees from a kind local charity. Hopefully, this will continue to be our main source of trees. Importantly, the trees are not grown commercially and are removed as part of a local conservation programme.
We have now included a ‘woodland trail’ where children can be guided through a 700m long path illuminated by coloured lights. Along the way they can see ice skaters dancing on the ice to the sound of Christmas music. They can enjoy a winter’s tale and hot chocolate in the wood cabin before seeing Santa riding through the woods in his sleigh.
Below are some more photographs from recent years that hopefully give an idea of what we do! We are particularly keen to continue this rather special event and have never asked for any money from those children who visit Santa. If you would like to donate to this event, please contact me!
Thank you for taking the time to read this article.
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