A conversation between HSE staff on a coffee break 15 years ago continues to make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of Co Mayo families, bringing a bit of Christmas magic to many homes in need.
Out of that chat in 2002 the Bronntanas Project was born. This year, it will deliver over 500 Christmas presents to struggling families across the county.
“The idea for Bronntanas came about when clerical staff and social workers were chatting over coffee and wondering what they could do to support local families over the Christmas period. From that original concept, it was decided to set it up and organise an anonymous pool of volunteers to buy presents for individual children,” explained Teresa Quinn, who co-ordinates the project.
“The main goal of the scheme is to support parents who are experiencing difficulties at Christmas by providing a gift for them to give their children on Christmas morning.
” Families are identified by community services or a family can contact the scheme directly. A gift asked for by the individual child is then bought by one of the volunteers. The gift does not cost more than €30. They buy the present and then drop it off at a central point where it is then distributed to the families. The volunteer and the child they have bought for never meet.
Volunteers are ordinary people from HSE and Tusla staff who all help to run the scheme and also from the general public. Mayo County Council are also involved, with a staff member there co-ordinating the volunteers from county council staff.
“We have a media campaign every year to recruit volunteers and we always get a great response. People are delighted to have the opportunity to help a child in Co Mayo directly. We have had a lot of people asking if we are helping the local Syrian community and also the nearby Direct Provision accommodation because they are keen to help those families. We are all-inclusive and both communities will benefit from Bronntanas,” said Teresa.
Volunteers are also using it more and more as a unique Christmas gift or to teach their children that there are people in the community who need support.
Every year there is more of a demand on the gifts required. In 2015, they provided over 250 gifts for children in Mayo. Last year that rose to 350, while they will give out over 500 presents this year.
“Every year we hear stories from parents who are struggling and would be unable to provide for their children during the high pressure time that Christmas has become. They are thankful for our support and it helps them rest a bit easier for Christmas morning knowing that Santa will be bringing something for their child,” she said.
“The demand for the scheme is growing year on year and the co-ordination has become harder to manage. We rely on volunteers to buy the presents and take on other duties to support the running of it. We are lucky in Mayo that senior HSE management value the scheme and support it.
” While the scheme does not accept or give cash, sometimes vouchers are given to older children and teenagers.
“Vouchers can be given to parents to help towards the cost of a more expensive item,” explained Teresa. “And this year we had a request for a voucher for local café because a teenager wanted to bring her friends there for hot chocolate.”
Co-ordinating the scheme is a mammoth task for Teresa and her team of helpers. The work started as soon as Halloween was over and will go on until December 22nd.
“It is a well-oiled machine at this stage but it takes a lot of work. With the best will in the world, we will still be accepting presents right up until the Friday before Christmas and, of course, there are always those last-minute calls from parents who find themselves suddenly struggling to pay for everything,” said Teresa.
“It is a fantastic way of helping families in need and it is worth every minute of work that goes into it,” she added.