Christmas has always held a special significance for Gloria Stewart.
As a child growing up in an impoverished household, her parents - who struggled to make ends meet all year round – worked hard to make the festive period special for the family of seven, scrimping and saving to ensure the fire was lit, paper decorations were made, and they all had a plateful of delicious food.
Years later, her beloved mum, Lil, died on Christmas Day, and for years afterwards the festive season was tinged with sadness for Gloria.
Then 11 years ago, whilst visiting a friend in hospital, a chance meeting with an elderly lady in the waiting room would change everything again. The pair started talking about Christmas, which was just around the corner, and the older lady revealed she would be spending the day in bed with a packet of biscuits and a flask of tea.
“She told me she had no family, and it broke my heart to think of her alone and unhappy on what should have been one of the happiest days of the year,” said Gloria.
Afterwards, Gloria was haunted by the encounter. A few days later, she made a decision; she would host a special festive lunch especially for older people in Sheffield who were on their own at this time of year. With the help of her family and friends, and many local donations, Gloria pulled her first ever ‘Home Alone’ event together in just a few short weeks.
“It was a wonderful day, and at the end of it, I remember thinking I’d put 87 smiles on 87 faces,” Gloria smiled.
Over a decade later, Gloria's festive ‘Home Alone’ luncheons are still going strong, and have become rather famous in the region, with over 400 people attending last year’s event. But despite the impact she has had in the city, with a number of her supporters dubbing her’ Mrs Christmas,’ many people still do not know the story behind the woman who made it her mission to ensure nobody is lonely at this special time of year. It was this realisation that inspired Michelle Rawlins - a local freelance writer, and a huge admirer of Gloria’s – to approach her about joining forces to write her life story.
“Most people have no ides what inspires Gloria to do what she does," said Michelle, who lives with her family in Millhouse Green.
“She's such an incredibly warm-hearted and generous lady who, despite suffering with such ill health over the years, dedicates so much of her time to making sure other people are happy.
“It was about this time last year I decided to write a book and tell Gloria’s story.”
Michelle and Gloria worked together from January to April this year, spending hours on the phone talking each week.
“She told me about being raised in a busy, rag-and-bone household, growing up living in hand-me-down rags, with few friends. The family of seven lived in a two-bedroomed house without central heating, and barely had enough food to go around, but despite this, her parents were generous people. There was always a stranger at their dining table, somebody who was in need, and they would always manage to make the food stretch.”
Gloria' childhood was made harder by the mental breakdown of her father, and the struggles of her mum, who did her best to hold everything together. Gloria’s only real friend was a stray dog whose fur she would cry into each night, sparking a lifelong love of canine companions.
As an adult, Gloria met and married Mike, the love of her life, and together they had four children.
“She was always determined her children would know nothing but happy Christmases,” Michelle said.
When her mum died on a Christmas morning, her sudden loss was a real blow to Gloria, but she focused on the family, managing to get through opening the presents that evening with her children, as her mum’s gifts remained unwrapped under the tree.
“Gloria's quite a lady," confirms Michelle.
“She dealt with losing both her parents whilst battling cancer twice, and living with epilepsy. She even pulled the first Home Alone luncheon together shortly after suffering a stroke.
“Gloria’s own story is at the very heart of who she is and what she does. Her own parents did their best to give so much when they had so little, and that example stayed with Gloria. She’s known a lot of tricky times in her life, and yet remains such a warm and positive person, so intent on ensuring people feel loved and cared for.
“It's been an absolute pleasure to help tell her story.”
‘A Friend For Christmas,' is available now on Amazon.