In the first of a new series Jo Davison talks to Gloria Stewart, whose Home Alone Christmas Lunch happens in two weeks and there’s not enough money. Can you help her make it happen?
It’s one of the city’s most magical Christmas events – a day that underlines the true meaning of festive goodwill.
But the recession is threatening to mar the festive lunch heart-of-gold grandma Gloria Stewart throws for the city’s lonely and isolated.
The 62-year-old has been working her Christmas miracle for the last three years. Every autumn since she first came up with the idea in 2008, she has cheerfully set about raising the money and finding volunteers to make the day go with a swing.
But in just two weeks, up to 300 people will be turning up at Owlerton Stadium for turkey and trimmings, a singsong and a smile – and there is still two thirds of the money to find.
The event Gloria has poured her heart and soul will still go ahead, she vows, even though she has just over £1,100 towards the day – and needs another £2.500.
“It will happen, come what may,” says the pensioner left disabled after three bouts of cancer and a stroke. “I am praying more donations come in before the big day. If not, I’ll cut a few corners and make do – we’ll forget the crackers, cut down on the wine and people might not get a gift to go home with. It won’t be the end of the world; they will still have a lovely day.
“And if needs be, the rest will come out of my pocket. I cannot let people down. I’ve seen how much it means to them.
“The sad stories I’ve heard from some of the guests would break your heart,” she says. “There are so many people for whom Christmas is just another day, spent with no one to talk to.
“Not all of my guests are elderly – though the eldest is 105, the youngest is a single mum of 34 who yearns for a bit of company and conversation. And not all of them live alone – some have partners who have suffered strokes or are living with dementia. Their days can be just as silent.”
The Ecclesfield pensioner is far from wealthy; she plans to put the money her children give to her at Christmas into the kitty. “And I’ll get the rest of the money from somewhere,” she adds.
It won’t be the first time she has given away her own Christmas box to ensure her guests get theirs. She admits there has been a shortfall before – which she has quietly made up herself.
And whenever there has been a surplus of donated cash, she spends it on gloves and thermals and takes them to a homeless project. “I don’t want to make a fuss about the money,” she says. “I get pleasure from helping people; that’s just the way I am.’’
I’m so grateful for donations
A little girl’s birthday money, a cheque from former Home Secretary David Blunkett, a wheelbarrowful of frozen turkeys and beer and wine from an award-winning local brewery...
They are among the donations Gloria has gratefully received towards the 2011 Home Alone Lunch.
Each year, she trawls the Yellow Pages for fresh companies to write to, asking for help. “The only thing I can offer you in return is a good name,” she adds at the end of each letter.
Usually, donations and offers of help flood in. This year, though, there have been fewer replies and Gloria realises it’s because times are hard. “Money is tight for a lot of businesses; they can’t afford to give,” she says.
Thankfully, though, scores of individuals and local businesses who have supported her year on year have turned up trumps again. The biggest gift comes from Owlerton Stadium which has once again donated the venue and staff free of charge.
“Many donate without even being asked now. When their letters come, I feel like bursting into tears,” says Gloria.
“David Blunkett has sent a cheque for three years now, Jim Harrison of Thornbridge Brewery has supplied the drinks from the very first event, Fir Vale Pharmacy have sent us £100 two years running and lots of others give what they can time and again.”
New givers include Real Radio, who have thrown £150 into the kitty, Sainsbury’s on The Moor, who are giving mince pies, and Patterson’s butchers of Firth Park have pledged to supply all the turkeys.
Volunteers old and new will be turning out to help on the day, too. Voluntary Action have offered to wrap presents and write Christmas cards, cabbies from City Taxis will again be ferrying people to and from the event for free and staff from the HSBC bank will again be acting as hostesses along with Sheffield Eagles players. Local singers and amateur DJs will once again be giving their talents for free.
Says Gloria: “These people make the day really special. I really can’t thank them enough and assure them that whatever they give, their money or their time, it is very well spent.”
Big appetite for lunches
GLORIA’S Home Alone lunch is sparking other towns into action.
Yesterday she helped Rotherham stage its first event, a lunch for 100.
The council called in Gloria at the suggestion of former Mayor, Coun Rose McNeelly.
She had been a guest at last year’s Sheffield lunch and was so impressed she asked if an event could be held in her home town.
“The Mayor stayed all afternoon with us last year and really enjoyed the atmosphere and the way people interacted. I was touched when they asked me to organise an event for them.”
Ecclesfield caterer and chef Roger Harrod, a long-term supporter of the Sheffield event, sourced the food for the Park Inn Hotel at Manvers near Wath and finance has come from yet more of Gloria’s fundraising, with many borough councillors responded to her appeal for cash.
She has been approached to help Doncaster set up a similar event in 2012, but due to time constraints, wants only to be an advisor rather than the figurehead.
Old lady my inspiration
FOR the fourth year, Gloria Stewart wants to bring a bit of cheer to the people Christmas passes by.
She wrote to The Star back in autumn 2008 to tell us of her plan – and why.
She had met an old lady in a hospital waiting room and had not been able to forget their conversation. “She admitted to me that for years she had been on her own on Christmas Day,” said Gloria.
“She had no family to speak of. She went to bed with a pack of biscuits and a flask of tea and hoped the day would pass as quickly as possible.”
It spurred Gloria on to organise an event for as many people like that old lady as she could muster. Gloria’s only sadness? She has never been able to trace the old lady who inspired the day.
See Saturday’s Retro for Monica on loneliness at Christmas.