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How to help: foodbanks and women's refuges

Many of us want to help more but think we don't have enough money or enough time to go around. I'd like to suggest that isn't true.

I don't mean that in a try harder guys manner, but rather with a genuine, practical look at giving time and resources amidst a busy life. Giving time does not have to mean a regular voluntary position.

Last year I heard about Project Shoebox. The idea was to collect toiletries and beauty items to make up shoeboxes for women in refuges - acting as a much needed start-up set for those who are in this situation, many of whom arrive with only the clothes on their back. The campaign was built around the lead-up to Christmas.

You could either drop off or send items to a collection point, or start a collection for your own local women's refuges.

I decided to give the latter a go. I knew it might be a bit of hard work and imagined this would begin by asking my colleagues, and then extend to engaging with other local businesses, picking up from them etc.

It was so much simpler than I imagined. I sent an all-staff email to my theatre. The next day items started appearing on my desk and increasingly built and built. At the two week deadline I'd given myself we had enough items to give a fully packed box to women in not one but two local refuges, a lot of extras and children's books people had also helpfully donated.

I could have cried with happiness. I think I might have done at one point!

And to think that was just from my workplace, without any chasing.

It did take a bit of organising - working out towards the end what we needed more of and what we definitely didn't, and collecting shoeboxes from shoe shops.

Then me and a friend spent a long evening decorating the boxes and filling each one equally. That was probably the most hard work that went into it, but was also so much fun and a really nice way to spend an evening.

The boxes ended up not just being practical start-up kits but also luxurious gifts that anyone would love to receive.

Here's not even all of the items before boxing up:

And here's our boxes at the end of packing:

So, a lesson learned: people are so willing to help, they just need to be asked, and for it to be an easy process. Don't feel shy about being the person to start that process.

My colleagues weren't asked to take items to somewhere else in town, but just my desk. They felt good about it and it was lovely to see everyone really come together.

If you fancy giving this a go, you can find existing drop off points here or there's some practical tips for starting your own collection at the end of this post.

There's also now an Indiegogo raising funds to help with distribution, if you'd prefer to donate money.

This year, I'd like to do the same again, but I'm also thinking about food banks.

Most towns will have one and they always need donations. So many (too many) people need these services to survive in desperate circumstances. A third of those helped by food banks are children.

So, if you can spare anything that they need, please do seek out your nearest foodbank and help.

Better still, start a group collection. Send the list of items to your colleagues, neighbours, or fellow parents at school, and ask if they'd be happy to donate items - whether from their cupboard at home or via their next food shop.

If you're a public facing organisation such as a theatre, school or cafe, especially somewhere people will be coming anyway, then look into if you can accept donations.

A word of warning again, you will most likely receive way more than you expect. If you don't drive, enlist the help of someone who does. If the foodbank is close enough, one of these trolly bags may be helpful, or just use a suitcase.

As your collection goes along, you can gage if you need to do regular drop-offs to avoid storage being an issue. If your foodbank is close then they'd most likely appreciate this anyway.

If you don't think you'll have enough time for drop offs and to keep an eye on the collection, ask if anyone fancies getting involved. There will most likely be someone that is more than happy to help.

And if you don't have the time or energy for starting a group collection, that's absolutely ok too. You can donate to an existing one - there's often collection points in supermarkets. (or not at all! Your life.)

Ideally, these things would be something we'd do year round, but this is a good starting point. So in the lead-up to Christmas if you can take this opportunity to get people together and do something that will help so many then that really is a wonderful thing.

And if you can keep it going, even better.

Good luck!

A few practical tips for anyone wanting to give Project Shoebox a go:
  • Ask for toiletries and beauty items such as: toothbrush. toothpaste, face wash, wipes. deodorant, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser, make-up, hand cream, soap, razor, dry shampoo, chap stick, nail files etc
  • These are often things you can find at home never used, but you can also suggest exchanging Boots or Nectar points, or making use of a multi-buy when doing their own shopping. Hotel, flight and magazine freebies are also all welcome!
  • When getting in touch with the contact for your local refuge (look online) clearly explain what you're doing first, and then ask for guidance on how many boxes to make up. For good reasons there is a lot of confidentiality in place, but they will be so glad of the help. You can also ask if they have any children in residence, and then suggest bringing old books in to those you know with children.
  • This project can be as big or small as you can do: if you can just gather a few items, that still helps. Don't see it as all or nothing.
  • Have somewhere to store items and shoeboxes. Ideally a spare room or under your bed or something while you collect. For big collections, apparently Tesco have community rooms can use for free - worth looking into.
  • Towards the end of your collection, do a quick tally of what you have. You'll probably end up with more than enough body moisturiser (usually unused gifts), and not enough toothbrushes. You can then email out giving guidance on this to those still wanting to donate.
  • Leading on from this, places like Poundland and Primark do multi-packs of toothbrushes and other cheap items.
  • You could also ask at local beauty counters for any perfume or beauty samples they are willing and able to give, explaining the reason why.
  • A practical one on wrapping the boxes - use glue rather than tape. It's quicker and works better. Roll a large rectangle of wrapping paper, and place your box in the middle with enough paper around it to cover the sides of box. Cut the rectangle out, and then cut a diagonal line from each corner of the paper, ending just before corner of each box. Glue underneath the main part of box, and place on paper, then glue sides. It'll get faster as you go.
For more tips and advice go to the Project Shoebox Facebook. Any questions on what I did personally give me a shout @amyjanesmith