Wednesday, December 26, 2012
The seasonal spirit of goodwill was alive in abundance in Norwich as generous volunteers provided a traditional Christmas, with all the trimmings, for hundreds of the city’s most vulnerable and isolated people.
The Norwich Open Christmas, now in its 21st year, offered a hot turkey dinner, festive entertainment and an opportunity to make new friends for anyone who was homeless or lonely during the festive period.
More than 100 volunteers gave their time to help the event which catered for about 400 people, all of whom were warmly welcomed to St Andrew’s Hall yesterday morning.
For some, the day brought a respite from their social, financial or health problems, and gave them a freshly-cooked meal, the offer of donated clothes or food parcels – and the promise of a bed for the night for anyone found to be living on the streets.
But for others, left alone at Christmas because of bereavement or family problems, it was simply a chance to savour the joys of the season in the company of others.
After meeting some of the volunteers and guests, Lord Mayor of Norwich Ralph Gayton said: “We hear a lot about the spirit of Christmas and sometimes it can be given lip service – but this is a real example of what the real spirit of Christmas should be.
“People who are homeless or lonely have somewhere they can come to enjoy themselves and all the volunteers, who make all of this possible, are to be congratulated on what has become a marvellous tradition. This is Norwich at its best.
“It is a place to meet up and talk for people who might otherwise feel isolated. It makes them feel valued.”
June Farrow, a retired nurse from Bawburgh, began attending the Open Christmas lunch nine years ago, following the death of her husband, Albert.
“This is the only social day out in the whole year because I do not drive, so I appreciate today more than I can say,” she said. “We had no children, so I am totally alone. That is why I want to come down here and meet people. They pick me up and take me home afterwards, otherwise I would never be able to come here.
“I see people here from year to year. You do lose some friendships over the years, but fortunately I have survived.”
Peter Webber, from Lakenham, said he was enjoying the Open Christmas meal for the third time.
“Christmas can be a lonely time for a lot of people,” he said. “I live on my own and all my family are down in Ipswich or Essex. I would rather be down here with friends rather than being on my own. I suffer from depression and I lost members of my family. It is not a nice time, is Christmas – so I come and spend it here.”
Robert Bailey, 64, a retired violin maker and sculptor from Duke Street, said he visited the event for very different reasons.
“I have a large circle of family and friends, so I have lots of choices of where I could go for Christmas, but I like to come here as an interested observer.
“I was an orphan when I was born and I was brought up in children’s homes, boarding school and then I joined the army, so a lot of my earliest Christmases ended in disaster.
“This is a totally hassle-free environment where one can escape. It is quite a surreal gathering of people. A lot of people you will see begging on the streets and they might be people you try to avoid, but when you are thrust together with them you start to realise that they are human beings as well.”
Linda Harper, of the Norwich Open Christmas organising committee, said the number of guests continued to rise from the 80 people who were served dinner at the inaugural event in 1991, by about 25 volunteers.
“It has evolved over the years,” she said. “The more people that know about it, the more the word spreads, among both guests and volunteers. Many people come here with friends as volunteers as it has now become their way of spending Christmas.
“We have got more people this year than last year. There is the financial situation which everyone is aware of, but also a lot of people are realising that this is not just for homeless people, which was the intention when it started. We have a lot more people now who would otherwise spend Christmas alone. They come for the company.
“I have been doing it for 15 years and it is such a rewarding way of spending Christmas Day. It is impossible to describe the atmosphere in here when the meal is served.”
Another long-serving volunteer is Sharon Bedford, a qualified nurse working at the Newmarket House Clinic on Newmarket Road, who helps with first aid issues and any health or mobility problems among the guests.
“It is a wonderful day, and I love being here,” she said. “A lot of people come with stories about why they are on their own at Christmas. They might have lost loved ones, or are separated from their families and feeling isolated – so they come here.”
Volunteering for the first time was Phil Rochford, 22, from George Borrow Road, who works at the Narthex visitor centre at Norwich’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.
He said: “I am part of a very large family, so every Christmas has always been very family orientated. But this year my parents were doing something similar to this in their parish so I thought it was the right time for me to come and volunteer here. I had the availability but you also have to take the responsibility.
“Today can do a huge amount for everybody that comes. This is the one time of year when a lot of them will have human contact. We have families here as well and it is vitally important to provide a sense of community for them which they might not have in other aspects. They might make life-long friends here.”