Rachel Cunningham – The Santa Drive

Posted December 9, 2019 in More

Music Current 20 mar-15 apr – Desktop

“A colleague of mine told me about a family she worked with who were staying in a hotel, and could not afford for Santa to come that year, and as a result her little boy thought that it was because he was bold. This was heart-breaking and not right.”

Rachel Cunningham talks to us about the origins of the Santa Drive, its mission to help Santa find homeless children in Hotels at Christmas, as well as her involvement in a separate project alleviating loneliness in the community.

What is the Santa Drive and what are its origins?

The Santa Drive started December 2017 while I was working with the Emergency Family Team with Focus Ireland.  A colleague of mine told me about a family she worked with who were staying in a hotel, and could not afford for Santa to come that year, and as a result her little boy thought that it was because he was bold. This was heart-breaking and not right, so we decided to help Santa find the children in Hotels at Christmas.

So, through the service myself and the team reached out to the families and asked what each child would like from Santa, I felt this was the most important part, actually asking as opposed to assuming. We made our list for Santa and contacted all my friends and family who offered to help gather the gifts, each helper was a assigned a gift, and we all came together to distribute them.  Everyone really enjoyed the personal touch of a specifically chosen Santa gift for each child.

The following year the list of children and helpers got bigger, and we also collected a large amount of activity vouchers for the families, we had panto tickets, zoo passes and loads of different restaurants, these were fantastic and really helped ease the pressure of the Christmas holidays for parents. The response was great. We also opened up a space on Christmas day for some of the families that had nowhere to spend the day, the kids were able to stuff their faces and really enjoy their gifts, play, make a mess and loads of noise, it was great fun!

This year we have nearly 300 children matched to a helper from our list, the gift requests have been sent in, and we have asked for vouchers towards the gifts this year so that we can manage the volume expected. A gang of helpers will be meeting up mid-December and we will be helping Santa gather the gifts, and get them ready to be sent out to services in time for Christmas.


How can people be part of it and contribute?

For anyone who would like to contribute this year, the names for gifts have already been taken, but we are accepting donations of activity voucher throughout the whole of December, I can’t stress the value of these enough, the Christmas holidays are long so this gives a gift that both the parents and children can enjoy together. We are accepting vouchers for any kind of activity that is suitable for families, cinema, bowling, zoo, restaurants etc…

Vouchers can be dropped off to Lucky’s Bar on Meath Street or to Hens Teeth in Blackpitts. Vouchers can also be emailed to me on merrylilsanta@gmail.com It is important to note that we won’t accept cash.


How would you assess the homeless situation in the city now?

I think I can speak for anyone who has read the news or has walked through the city recently, it is growing at an alarming rate. For me personally, it’s the lack of the day-to-day things that we all take for granted, like not having somewhere to prepare food, wash clothes, and just simply relax when you want to, and for the children, they can’t invite friends back after school and they don’t have anywhere quiet and stable to do their homework. The unpredictability of not knowing where you will be staying from one night to the next must be so exhausting and scary, I can’t even imagine what it is like for anyone, especially those with children, it really is no childhood at all.


What is the single most important thing the government, and we, can do to address the issue of homelessness in the city?

I think the most important thing that the Government can do is of course address the housing crisis effectively, provide housing that is actually affordable, better protection/security for people renting, and develop more strategies that keep people at risk of homelessness in their homes with wrap around supports.

I think what we can do is support services that aim to address the day to day struggles facing people experiencing homelessness. An example of this is the Focus Ireland Family Centre that will be open in the city centre very soon. This service will not only aim to provide the practical solutions of helping families find a home, there will also be a lot of attention given to the more human side of the effects of homelessness on individuals.

This is going to be an incredible service with a fantastic team, it will provide so much support for families in a safe and secure environment, families can wash their clothes, support their children with their homework, and there will be hot meals available.


Can you tell us more about your project on loneliness?

I started my loneliness project at the start of the summer. I have been really interested about the area of loneliness for a few years now, and I am keen to look at ways to address it within my community.  I have been reading recommendations that have come from the Loneliness Taskforce that was developed in Ireland in 2018, and one that stuck out was ‘we need bold, creative community initiatives to alleviate loneliness.’

So I decided to address it within my community of friends to see what happens. I developed a short survey that asked people three questions about loneliness, what it meant to them, their experiences of it if any, and if there was anyone they were concerned about today.  I just wanted to see if my feelings, experiences and concerns were shared. The survey was carried out via Survey Monkey so all answers were anonymous; this led to an incredible response.


What surprised you about the responses to the survey?

To be honest I was blown away, 350 people responded, and most of the answers were long and detailed. The feedback I was receiving on an individual level was so moving, I had a few people tell me they felt emotional answering them. The responses were very personal and descriptive, approximately 97% stated that they have felt lonely, and for a lot of people it was quite a regular experience, bearing in mind this survey was aimed at my generation, so it wasn’t communities  you may commonly associate it with such as the elderly.

A lot of experiences describe loneliness within a social setting, a feeling of being forgotten if you’re not up for being out and in good form. Feeling invisible at times in a social setting was a key theme. A majority of the respondents are concerned about someone else who might be lonely, a lot of people are worried about family members, there was so much more. I got a sense of the complexity of loneliness within my community, and from my research I understand how harmful this can be if it’s not addressed, I really feel it is important to look at how we can change the way we think and talk about loneliness.


What extensions to this are you envisioning? 

So the aim of the project was to encourage a small shift in thinking within my community. I wondered, if 350 can stop and think about loneliness by answering three short questions, could I prompt this shift more regularly? I sent out the results to as many people as I could individually, I then asked if they would like to take part in a weekly mailing list, to which most people agreed. The response to the e-mails has been great, each week I pull a topic raised in my survey and explore articles and research on it, and bring people through my subjective journey of exploring it.

I feel the key issues we face is the taboo around loneliness, it’s almost like a dirty word or a sign of failure to say you feel alone, which is strange seeing as a majority of us experiences it.  Even though we are seeing more and more articles and medical professionals describing it as a health epidemic, we still don’t really talk about it.

The goal behind the emails is a slow burner, it’s a conditioning approach to changing how we think, and as the weeks go on I am really enjoying the process of learning, it also prompts me to stop and think about loneliness more often.  The feedback has been really positive so I must be doing something right. I hope through normalizing conversations around loneliness it will encourage people to feel comfortable addressing it with themselves and each other.


Hopes for 2020 – personal and professional?

Personally I hope to see where my loneliness project can go, I feel privileged to have access to so much personal data on what loneliness looks like for my friends and extended social groups, it would be a shame to not use it properly.

As this is a personal project I am enjoying watching it grow organically, I have plans with some friends to look at representing the survey results in a short video, we agreed to start this just after Christmas so I am looking forward to that.

I am also in the process of working on a podcast, I have partnered up with one of my best pals to create this so I feel really lucky to have her on board. The design of the podcast will be us having honest chats about loneliness, particularly about our own experiences and vulnerabilities, we want to have a bit of craic with it while touching off serious tones throughout. The target audience will be mainly those who took part of the survey, so we hope to get constructive feedback and ideas so that it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

I have approached a few different charities here and in the UK with my ideas, there has been a lot of interest in it, we also have a few people lined up to be guests on the podcast when it is up and running. The time frame for the podcast is unknown but it’s a work in progress, we are creating it around our own jobs/lives so there is no major rush or deadline, and I am really enjoying the journey.

Professionally, I am really passionate about working in the homeless sector, and I have just started a new role with Focus Ireland, where I will be working with young adults experiencing homelessness, the team are great and the service is so important, I feel lucky to be a part of it.

To contribute to the Santa Drive mail merrylilsanta@gmail.com

To be part of the Loneliness Project mail letstalkaboutloneliness@gmail.com


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