Boxes of joy which let kids know they are not forgotten at Christmas
Hundreds of shoe boxes are pouring into Derby's sorting office to support Operation Christmas Child. Bursting with gifts, they are being sent to needy youngsters in Romania. Wendy Roberts reports.
JOHN Gatt has this special message to the people of Derby who have donated gift-filled shoe boxes for children in Romania – "Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
The retired charity worker is working round the clock to get the parcels ready and delivered in time for Christmas.
But the former Rolls-Royce employee is not doing it alone.
A team of dedicated volunteers from across the city are giving their time to make this annual venture a success.
"Since we opened the sorting centre just a couple of days ago, we've received 762 shoe boxes," said John. "It's an impressive number and a fantastic start to our appeal.
"We'd really like to beat our target from last year and send more than 8,500 boxes to Romania."
John, from Littleover, is the area co-ordinator for Operation Christmas Child, which is run by Samaritan's Purse.
For the past five years, he has been a dedicated member of the team. So is his wife, Sylvia, who also works tirelessly to support the worthy cause.
This week, the pair are part of a growing number of volunteers who are spending their time at Darley Abbey Mills.
One part of the mill, which is currently disused, has been loaned to the charity and will act as a sorting and storage depot.
It is here the shoe boxes will be collected, checked and packed into boxes to await collection.
Between now and then, dozens of people have some very important jobs to do.
John said: "The atmosphere is always brilliant. We get an area set up and ready to receive the boxes and then it's action stations.
"We have people bringing deliveries and putting them into sorting piles. Then we have a section of the warehouse set up for people who sort through the shoe boxes and seal them up ready for packaging.
"The final part of the process is to carefully pack them into larger carriers so they can be successfully loaded on to the lorry.
"We've started really well and already we've had many, many shoe boxes delivered to us. It is always amazing when we start to see how hard people have worked.
"When they're all piled up, and the boxes are wrapped in lovely Christmas paper, it makes you feel very proud of the people who have taken time out of their busy lives to pack a box for children in need. It is overwhelming."
Volunteer Joyce Baldwin has been giving up her time for Operation Christmas Child for eight years.
The 65-year-old, from Etwall, is passionate about the charity and always makes time to lend a hand.
Today she is working at the sorting office, getting the parcels ready to make the final part of their journey.
"It's a great job," she said. "Everyone is very generous. People go out of their way to fill a box and we are always grateful.
"This year the shoe boxes are being driven to Romania. They'll be distributed to children who live in orphanages and areas of poverty.
"For many of them, it's the only gift they'll receive this Christmas.
"The friendship group at St Barnabas' Church in Derby, has been fantastic. They've been knitting and sewing. Together, they've filled 34 boxes. How wonderful is that?"
John's wife, Sylvia, was lucky enough to have travelled to Belarus to witness first hand the reaction of children as they are presented with a shoe box.
She went in 2010 and her memories are still fresh.
"They cried, they whooped and they screamed with joy," said the 57-year-old. "It was a very emotional and moving time. The joy on their faces will stay with me forever. I loved seeing them receiving their boxes. The people of Derby need to know what an amazing job they are doing.
"Some of these children don't get anything for Christmas. I remember two young lads chasing after us when all the boxes had been delivered. They were shouting but I couldn't understand what they were saying.
"When we finally managed to find a translator, we were told what they'd been saying. They were asking us how they'd managed to find us. They said they'd thought they'd been forgotten and that made me feel very sad.
"It made me want to do as much as I could for the charity. Some children around the world have very difficult lives.
"They deserve to receive a little shoe box filled with pens and pencils, hats and gloves. The people of Derby seem to understand just how vital this small gesture is.
"Derby is a generous city. The people here care about children in other parts of the world."
This week, it is a hive of activity inside Darley Abbey Mills. More than 10 people are rushing around to get the first batch of shoes boxes checked and ready for delivery.
Volunteer Anne Strong showed me round and explained every part of the process. After that, I was allowed to help sort out a few shoe boxes and take them to the packaging area.
I picked a box that had been prepared for a little girl, between the age of five and nine.
It was wrapped in brightly coloured Christmas paper and was packed to perfection.
Inside, there were sweets, pens and paper, soap and a face cloth, hats and gloves and a bouncy ball.
"This box is fantastic," said Anne, who was looking over my shoulder to ensure I'd got the job in hand. "It's brimming with lovely things and I know some little girl is going to love receiving this."
Every box I checked was beautifully packed. And should there be something in it that is not suitable, it is removed and replaced with something else.
Toy weapons are not acceptable and bottles of shampoo have to be taken out in case they spill and damage the box.
Out-of-date sweets also have to go and food products like biscuits are not allowed to be sent.
I was amazed by how generous people had been. A shoe box is not big and yet people had managed to cram inside so much great stuff.
Last year, my two boys asked me if they could fill a shoe box for Operation Christmas Child and I happily let them. I thought it was a great idea and gave me the chance to have the "there's always someone less fortunate than you" talk.
They loved finding things to put in their boxes and I loved helping them. It made us think about other children in the world who are not as lucky as us.
But after we delivered the boxes back to their school, I had no idea what happened to them next, and how they reached their final destination.
After I spent the morning at the mill, Anne made me feel like one of the volunteers.
I kept myself busy and sorted through quite a few boxes before another huge delivery arrived by car.
Members of the Rotary Club of Derby play a huge part in helping Samaritan's Purse.
More than 20 members make it their mission to collect shoe boxes from across the city and deliver them to the Derby sorting office.
They visit schools and community groups and bring the donations back in.
John Worthy is a Rotary Club of Derby member. This week, he has taken dozens of boxes to the Derby depot.
He said: "This annual appeal brings a gift to a child in need, packed and wrapped by many churches, school and workplaces.
"They are sent to orphans and vulnerable children living in difficult circumstances overseas.
"In previous years, a total of 10,000 shoe boxes have been collected in the South Derbyshire area and we are hoping for a similar number this year."
Rotarian Anthony Attwood has allowed Operation Christmas Child to use his historic mill building, which dates back to the 1700s.
"I'm delighted to help," said Mr Attwood. "This cause is very important and I am happy to support it."
Anne, Sylvia and Joyce are dedicated to sorting out as many as they can during their busy shift. Tomorrow, another team of volunteers will take up the reigns.
Anne said: "We get to hear lots of lovely stories about the people who fill these shoe boxes for us. A woman in Belper has knitted 600 hats this year.
"She hasn't been able to fill shoe boxes with all the different things, so she said she'd knit as many hats as she could.
"It has been wonderful and they are gratefully received. Churches, community groups and local schools have all joined this year's campaign.
"I've been involved with Operation Christmas Child for a very long time. I used to pack shoe boxes with my two children. Now I'm a grandma.
"I started helping out in the sorting office about three years ago and I love it. It is very addictive. People of any age can pack a shoe box.
"We've got young Brownies and Guides and pensioners who are 101 years old. There's no age barrier. Everyone has an important part to play."
New recruit Jason Hollman has also volunteered to help – but just for today. The company he works for, Aggregate Industries in Hulland Ward, has loaned him out for a stint of volunteering.
"I've loved it," said the 43-year-old. "At Aggregate Industries you're allowed to work for a charity for one day and still get paid by your company.
"I chose Operation Christmas Child because it was local and an extremely good cause.
"I've really enjoyed it. I've been packing all the shoe boxes into larger cardboard boxes ready for the next part of their journey."
Volunteers will spend every waking hour at the sorting office. The only day they are not working are Sundays but, should the need arise, people have promised to help.
As the morning slips into the afternoon, more and more shoe boxes arrive at the make-shift depot. Happy volunteers with smiley faces greet the drivers.
"We're hoping for huge numbers this year," said John. "In three days, we've sorted more than 700, so the signs are positive.
"People are so generous. It's a fact that filling a shoe box at Christmas time gives you a good feeling inside."