Appetite for festive spirit in Sheffield

GLORIA STEWART CHRISTMAS DAY  Gloria Stewart(right) with Brenda Rees(left) and Jean Beresford at the Owlerton Stadium.    15 December 2010
GLORIA STEWART CHRISTMAS DAY Gloria Stewart(right) with Brenda Rees(left) and Jean Beresford at the Owlerton Stadium. 15 December 2010
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HEART-of-gold grandma Gloria Stewart, known to the loneliest people in Sheffield as Mrs Christmas, has battled adversity to throw her annual party yet again.

Gloria is providing a ray of winter sunshine for those who need it the most by staging her fifth Home Alone Christmas Lunch on December 19.

Since 2008, when the idea came to her after hearing the sad story of an elderly woman preparing yet again to spend Christmas Day alone in bed with a flask of tea, the disabled pensioner has moved heaven and earth to stage a day of festive cheer for hundreds of people destined to spend the season in isolation.

This year, Sheffield MP David Blunkett, who has privately supported Gloria’s event for several years, will be a special guest at the heart-warming event.

“When Gloria first started the idea of bringing people together for fellowship and fun no one could have expected, least of all Gloria, that not only would it still be going now, but would have expanded in the way it has,” says Mr Blunkett.

“It is a great tribute to Gloria’s tenacity and to the generosity of volunteers and local businesses that this terrific occasion will bring Christmas cheer to so many people.”

Now recognised as a day that underlines the true meaning of Yuletide goodwill, all will go perfectly; sherry and conversation will flow, a festive three-course lunch will be enjoyed and new friendships will hopefully blossom among the 250 guests.

But what few will realise is just how close Gloria came to admitting defeat this time.

Year in, year out, she has battled on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Despite having been left disabled by a heart attack and two strokes, and the recession biting into people’s finances, she has garnered volunteers and donations of everything from turkey to tinsel.

But this year, a cancer scare threatened to stop the redoubtable Ecclesfield 63-year-old in her tracks. Eventually tests revealed she wasn’t suffering from the disease, but she is now living with a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease and facing a major operation in the New Year.

“It’s been a trying time and it meant I wasn’t well enough to start fund-raising in September as I normally do. I had only seven weeks to make it all happen. Time was against me and I really didn’t think I had a cat in hell’s chance,” says the mum of three and grandmother of six.

But out of the blue, news of a £1,000 donation from Sheffield University Students’ Union arrived and changed everything.

“I got a phone call telling me they wanted to give the proceeds of their Rag Week having read about the event on the internet. I burst into tears,” she says.

“Young people come in for some much criticism these days and it’s very unfair. Without this lovely gesture hundreds of lonely people would probably have missed out this year. They have also promised to act as volunteers on the day.” The donation spurred Gloria on and she found a new home for the lunch – the South Yorkshire Police Niagara Sports and Leisure Club in Wadsley Bridge.

“Manager Matt Lemm has bent over backwards to help, their chef is going to work for free and our regular chef, Roger Harrod of Harrods Catering in Ecclesfield, is to be front of house manager,” she says.

A host of donations have come in; a local woman who ran a half-marathon has donated £500, Karen Nixon from HSBC retail credit services has raised £560 by waxing her managers’ chests and staff at Skipton Building Society’s Sheffield, Hatfield and Wickersley branches, who last year raised money and turned up on the day to wash the dishes, were so humbled by the impact of Gloria’s event, they have pledged to do even more this year.

The three branches are donating £600 and have become dropping off points for Christmas gifts and cash for the event. The Sheffield branch is also holding a fundraising day for the public on Friday, December 7.

Says manager Allison Edgeler: “Christmas is a time for families and friends to come together, but unfortunately some people don’t have that opportunity. Gloria makes them forget that for a day.”

There is still a lot to do, though; Gloria, admits she is still only two thirds of the way towards the £3,750 she needs and once again is cheerfully resigned to digging into her own pocket to make up any shortfall.

If you want to help Gloria, contact her on 0114 2570460.