Santa’s helpers: Children reach out to other children through gift boxes

BOXING CLEVER: Pupils at Scoil Ghobnatan, Mallow, Co Cork, (from left) Alex Jones, Eve Crowley, Cillian Collins, Caitlin Clarke, and Lily May Moriarty, who are among the pupils taking part in the Christmas Shoebox Appeal. Picture Denis Minihane

Helen O’Callaghan talks to pupils and teachers at a Co Cork school about a nationwide initiative that sends gift boxes to kids in less privileged parts of the world

THE children at Scoil Ghobnatan in Mallow have been thinking not so much about the three Rs but about the four Ws. And that’s because the 590 pupils in this co-ed primary school have been making sure that other children in far-flung places in Eastern Europe and Africa will get a Christmas present this year.

So they’ve been busy responding to the Team Hope Shoebox Appeal and filling shoeboxes with the four Ws: something to wash with (such as a bar of soap, face-cloth, or toothpaste), something to write with (a copybook, markers, or a pencil case), something to wear (a hat, scarf, or a t-shirt) and something wow (such as some sweets, a teddy bear, or costume jewellery).

Alex, eight, in second class, put “a toy cat, sweets, a fidget-spinner, toothbrush, blue hat, green plastic flute, Play-Doh, some paints, colours and a notepad” in his shoebox. His mum and 12-year-old sister helped him fill it.

Caitlin, 10, in fourth class hopes “the little girl I’m giving it to will like everything” in her shoebox, which includes “fluffy pink gloves and fluffy purple socks”.

Ten-year-old Eve in fourth class is giving some new stuff and some of her own things — “I’m giving my teddy bear”. And six-year-old Lily May in first class really likes the pink hat she put in her shoebox, alongside the toy unicorn, and feels happy when she thinks of the little girl who’ll receive it.

Scoil Ghobnatan has pupils from all the continents, spanning a total of 45 nationalities, and they’ve been filling shoeboxes ever since current first-class teacher Nollaig Murphy suggested the idea to principal Michael Walsh back in September 2013.

Ms Murphy had just returned from summer holidays spent volunteering in Tanzania. “Seeing how little the children had there, and how they appreciated everything they got really impacted on me,” she says.

Mr Walsh immediately ran with making Team Hope’s Shoebox Appeal the main focus of the school’s charity support that year. Along with Nollaig and other teachers, he visited Team Hope’s depot in Charleville, where they got a sense of the shoebox effort.

“We were very encouraged by the work they were doing, how very purposeful it was, and that the end of the journey for the shoebox was into someone’s home,” he says.

Last year, pupils at the school filled 479 shoeboxes for the Team Hope Appeal. “Our target this year is to reach the magical 500,” says Mr Walsh.

Ms Murphy points out that for something like this to work, there has to be staff buy-in.

“And we have that. We have a committee of teachers — nine this year — who bring in empty shoeboxes so the children don’t have to be looking for them at home. Every September, we decide which shoe shops we’ll target to get the boxes, we agree a day that suits the shops, and teachers are allocated shops to visit.”

Each teacher is also allocated a stage within the school (junior/senior infants, first/second class, third/fourth class and fifth/sixth class), where they manage and oversee shoebox collection. “The teacher’s working at that stage anyway, as classroom or special education teacher, so when they’re on yard duty they might encourage the children to fill their boxes. And when a child brings in a shoebox, really excited, the teacher takes time in the morning — even if it’s only 30 seconds — to make a big deal of it. Because the child has gone to effort and our ethos is to acknowledge that.”

Children learn a lot from the project, she says, from senior infant pupils explaining the concept to junior infants and showing them sample made-up shoeboxes, to bartering and sharing. “A child might go to Aldi and get a three-pack of toothbrushes and give one to a friend who doesn’t have a ‘wash’ item. And the other child might have extra ‘wow’ that they can spare, so there’s a bit of bartering.” Filling the boxes is often a family-wide endeavour.

“Parents, grannies, aunts, uncles all get involved. Children from Latvia and Lithuania have brought in fabulous pieces of crochet from their grandmothers — one child’s grandmother crocheted a little shawl. We emphasise the item [e.g. toy] doesn’t have to be new, just as long as it’s clean and undamaged. Children put in their own fluffy bears. They often put in a photo of themselves with their name and age, so the child opening it has a sense of who sent it.”

Today the Team Hope’s truck arrives at Scoil Ghobnatan to collect the shoeboxes, there’s a great air of celebration, a carnival atmosphere. The truck drives right up to the door of the school. Class by class — starting with sixth class — the children process down through the school, each carrying their own shoebox and hand it to Sarah Janman, Team Hope volunteer coordinator for Mallow and Charleville, who’s waiting by the truck.

“So when the younger classes come out, there’s a great fuss made of them — lots of cheering and clapping — a great sense of encouragement. There’s popular music playing, including always a Band Aid number. There are big shoeboxes dancing around the yard [staff dressed as shoeboxes],” says Mr Walsh. And when the filled van is on the point of driving off, the caretaker — in shoebox guise — has on occasion been put into the van too and driven off.

Scoil Ghobnatan incentivises the project. “Every time a child brings in a filled shoebox, we put a coloured sticker on a chart in their corridor,” says Mr Walsh. “And at the end, each child gets a certificate signed by the principal, with the theme of the whole Scoil Ghobnatan Team Hope Shoebox endeavour emblazoned on it: ‘In giving, we receive’.”

Sarah Janman, Team Hope volunteer coordinator for Mallow and Charleville, loves collecting shoeboxes from Scoil Ghobnatan. “The atmosphere is so joyous,” she says.

Sarah started volunteering with the Team Hope Shoebox Appeal in 2007 when she collected from seven schools. “Now, I collect from between 40 and 45 schools in North Cork and South Limerick.” In total last year, she collected 4,500 shoeboxes at the Charleville depot. “We get them from businesses, credit unions, ladies’ clubs, playschools, individuals — I have one woman who does 100 herself throughout the year. She wraps every single box.”

Sarah was in a toyshop in the UK this summer buying Lego for her five-year-old grandson when she saw little packets of Hello Kitty jewellery for 10p each.

“I said ‘oh I’m having all of them — they’d be good for the shoeboxes’.”

Her daughter, Corinne, in her 20s, is her right-hand woman. “We do stuff all year for the shoeboxes. Corinne makes crochet ducks and fish. I do crochet snoods. We constantly have shoeboxes in our head — anybody who has the shoebox bug will understand.”

When Sarah visits schools to talk about the shoebox appeal, she encourages children to put in something from their Halloween trick-or-treat box. “That’s a form of sharing,” she says. And there are items that shouldn’t go into shoeboxes: liquid shower gel (it could spill or even be drunk), bubbles, story books (receiving children don’t read English), no war toys for Eastern European children, and no toy snakes for African children (‘a gift of a snake is perceived as putting a curse on the child’).

“Eastern European children love to get lollipops and costume jewellery in their shoebox. And African children love jerseys, flip-flops and sunglasses,” says Sarah. “A ball’s always good — children can play on their own with it or with friends. I ask that every box has a teddy bear because a teddy — unlike a toothbrush — is for life, it’s good for cuddling, the child might never have had a teddy and every child should have a teddy.”

Sarah has been in Kosovo and has seen the response when shoeboxes are finally put into the hands of children in underprivileged homes or in women’s refuges.

“They look at you as if to say ‘what’s this?’ We went to a kindergarten. I was sitting on the floor with children around me. One little girl opened her box and, with every item she took out, she said ‘Wow!’ Some children don’t want to open their box. They just hug it close to them. We say ‘open it’ and they say ‘no’. They do it in their own time.”


Shoebox stats

  • So far, 1,633 schools have signed up to take part this year in Team Hope Shoebox Appeal.
  • 161 of these schools are in Cork.
  • Of the 264,636 shoeboxes sent last year, 25,729 were collected in Cork. They travelled to children in Ukraine, Malawi, and Kosovo.
  • So far this year, Roscommon has the highest percentage of participating schools of any county, with over 60% of schools signed up.
  • 35% of schools in Ireland signed up to take part in 2017.

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