There’s no getting away from it. On every main television channel, in every newspaper ad, in every magazine we are bombarded with images of families gathered around more fancy sugar-coated, syrup-centred, glazed and creamy desserts than could feed a small village and turkeys the size of bear cubs. Beaming faces in paper hats, office parties, homely Christmas Eve scenes with excited children and card shops that now allow you to send and receive festive cards on behalf of the dog (no, really). Christmas is a time for gifts, food and families and it is all too easy to get pulled along by it all without thinking about what Christmas might mean for those who haven’t got these things.

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It’s A Wonderful Life: but not for everyone this Christmas

Of course, this is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the festive period. Of course you should. But if there’s one gift you could give this year that would be valued more than any overpriced olive-scented, all-glittering, anti-ageing bath set, it’s one that will not leave your bank card screaming for mercy. I’m not even saying you necessarily have to fork out £40 to buy a goat for an African village on behalf of someone else.

Instead, you can give the gift of your time.

I worked for many years in a small supermarket in a close-knit community to support my undergraduate studies and during that time, I became well-acquainted with the locals and loved working during the Christmas season. I loved the atmosphere and I enjoyed chatting to people about their plans for the holidays.

But I also discovered that for some, Christmas was a time of great loneliness and isolation. A number of the elderly members of the community told me that they couldn’t wait for Christmas to be over as often their partners had deceased and they had no other relatives around; for them, Christmas was just another day spent alone, only the isolation was more painfully acute. Some came into the store several times a day as the checkout assistants as they would be the only people they would have the chance to speak to all day. Some would buy a microwave meal-for-one to eat alone on Christmas Day as they asked, “Well what’s the point in me buying a turkey and having a dinner? I have no one to share it with. It’s too much food for one person.” Then there were those who were carers. Caring is not only demanding, exhausting and a round-the-clock job, but friends can become distanced and so often a carer can find themselves overwhelmed with no one to talk to.

What could I do to help?

It was then that I decided to become a volunteer for Age Cymru Swansea and offer my time just giving people the simple pleasure of having a visitor round for a cup of tea and a friendly chat; something we can so take for granted when surrounded by family or living with housemates. Loneliness amongst the elderly is a growing problem and Swansea in particular is crying out for volunteers. Though I had a job to hold down as well as a degree, I was only required to give an hour of my time a week but the difference that one hour can make to someone is just incredible. Through volunteering, I not only gained an insight into the heartbreaking reality of what life is like without company but I also helped to brighten someone’s day. As the weeks passed, just having someone tell you that your weekly visits are something that they look forward to was quite honestly more rewarding than any gift voucher I’ve ever received.

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It’s amazing what people generations apart can learn from each other. These people have often lived truly amazing lives and have overcome obstacles in life that I can barely imagine. I could have happily sat and listened to their stories long after my hour was up. One remarkably intelligent and extremely witty lady I used to visit taught me a lot about how education used to be, and her views on gender in society and it was interesting to discuss how things like this change from wartime Wales to now. She was keen to hear all about the essays I was working on and was always supportive of my academic career and I appreciated every bit of life advice she ever gave me. (She also tried to teach me to knit, trying to help my fumbling fingers to the point where she had to guide my hands around the knitting needle in hers, but my attempts at starting a scarf still looked like the aftermath of a pile of worms having a fight).

And it’s not just age charities that need your help. There has been a lot of focus in the media recently of Britain’s poverty crisis and the rising demand of Foodbank donations. How about just popping a few grocery items and maybe some seasonal treats into your local Foodbank donations box? Just a couple of pounds extra in your shopping basket will help ensure that a family does not have to send a child to bed starving or a mother to scrimp on £10 a week in order to feed her son, as seen in the case of 25-year-old single mother Jack Monroe (who has this week been announced as the new face of Sainsbury’s “Love Your Roast” campaign to tackle food waste).

With shops bustling with shoppers and it being the season of goodwill, now is an excellent time to lend a hand with fundraising for various charities. Though an expensive time of year, I’ve found that people are a lot more willing to donate their loose change to help others less fortunate at Christmas, and with such a wide range of charities in need of help all year round, you can always find one you think would really benefit from some fundraising efforts. I plan to do more of this over the next year, as I found of all voluntary projects, this is easiest to fit into a busy schedule whilst studying for an MA. I became involved in Diabetes UK’s Big Collections Weekend at Tesco in October and not only did I help with raising much-needed funds for research, but I also got to meet other people with diabetes who came along and shared their experiences. I even became inspired to look into starting a support group for teenagers and young adults in the future, something I feel would have helped me when growing up with Type 1 diabetes, and something I feel is very much needed in Swansea. I met some truly wonderful fellow volunteers whom I’ve stayed in touch with and raised awareness of a condition which is significantly on the rise in the UK.

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Diabetes UK Big Cellection Weekend: Tesco Extra, Fforestfach

There is so much you can bring to someone’s life with an hour or two of your time over Christmas. If you love children, how about volunteering with youth clubs or play groups? I volunteered for Interplay, “a project aiming to integrate young people with special needs into play and leisure opportunities in their community.” I think this is a wonderful idea and continues to be a huge success; children are able to play with others without judgement or being held back by any conditions they may have. It’s all about promoting equal opportunities and taking away the stigma of disability from a young age. And what a wonderful, lovely bunch of kids they were. For that week, I was asked by keen little voices to share my passion for art and teach the children how to draw cartoon animals so they could paint them. Seeing the delight on their faces at the finished, joint-effort pieces of artwork honestly felt amazing and having a child look up to you with admiration really is a beautiful feeling. (And yes, of course I got to go on the bouncy castle. Voluntary “work”? If only I could find paid employment that allowed me to bounce about in my socks).

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Sharing your passions: if doodling’s your thing, use it to bring a smile to a kid’s face.

So how about helping out with the homeless? Local hospitals? Community centres? Religious groups? Pay a visit to the Discovery office at Swansea University and have a chat to see what projects you can do locally through the uni. There really is something to suit everyone and believe me, you really can make a difference.

It’s the best way to raise a smile this Christmas without raising the amount on your overdraft.

by Natalie Ann Holborow

Discovery Volunteering: http://www.swansea.ac.uk/discovery/

https://www.facebook.com/DiscoverySvs

Swansea Council for Voluntary Service (SCVS): http://www.scvs.org.uk/

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