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Six years ago, Karen Downing decided to turn one of Liverpool’s best-loved Christmas traditions into a charity campaign for children in need in the city.
Shocked by statistics of how many youngsters would be homeless over the festive season, she and her friend began collecting pyjamas so children living in refuges could have a new pair for Christmas Eve.
They started off with just two collection points, hand-wrapping every pair before delivering them to five local shelters.
This year, their seventh Christmas, Karen estimates they’ll have 10,000 pairs to give out to more than 70 children’s centres, foodbanks, homeless charities, refuses and family hostels throughout the five Merseyside boroughs.
Instead of two collection points they’ve had around 120, reaching from Southport to Wirral and across Liverpool, and donations have been coming in since September.
“When we started it was because I saw a poster which said 80,000 children were going to be homeless and in need of help,” says Karen, 49. “Now that figure is 135,000 so the situation is desperate for so many more people.
“They’re living in dire poverty, we’ve gone back to the days where they literally have nothing, and if you’re struggling to get by from day to day then the little things, like new Christmas Eve pyjamas, have to get sacrificed because it can only be about the basics and the essentials.
“The big thing for us has always been, why shouldn’t these kids be able to say to their mates ‘I’m going home to put on my Christmas pyjamas and get ready for tomorrow’? Even if they’re not waking up to much, why shouldn’t they have that same bit of magic?”
Karen, from Woolton, now runs Pyjama Party Liverpool with her daughter Ash. She makes the most of six charity days from her employer, Regenda Homes, and uses holidays to organise collections, gather in all the donations and distribute them right up to Christmas Eve.
While she’s seen a shocking rise in need over the years, she’s also witnessed the incredible generosity of supporters who go out of their way to help.
“People actually start buying the pyjamas in the January sales, then they put them away and as soon as we announce where our collection points are going to be, they start dropping them off,” says Karen.
“This year, on our first day we got more than 3,000 and by day two we had 5,500 – that was more than we had in total in 2018 so that just shows how, even though times are really hard for a lot of people, they are still so kind in thinking about these kids who they don’t even know.
“They will give everything, and we often find that it’s the people with the least who give the most. We’ve had letters saying ‘sorry, I’ve only been able to give two pairs this year because my husband’s just lost his job.’
“We get older ladies coming up to us in Belle Vale Shopping Centre and when we tell them what we’re doing they go off and come back straight back with a couple of pairs. They’re probably on a pension, but they just want to help because they understand what it’s like. That’s why we’ve always kept it as a community-based voluntary appeal.”
The shopping centre lends Karen and Ash an empty unit to store the pyjamas, which has been invaluable since the appeal grew.
“We used to keep them at my mum’s house which was a bit of a nightmare – there were bags and boxes everywhere, you had to scramble over them to make a cup of tea – so it’s much easier now.”
Some children who get a pyjama gift know where it’s come from, others think Santa has delivered it or their own mum or dad.
“We don’t wrap the pyjamas anymore because then families can do it themselves in their own paper and say they’re from them. Sometimes the kids do know, though, and we got a lovely little drawing of Father Christmas with a note on the back from the Centre 56 nursery the other day which just said, ‘thank you for helping us.’
“For some of them, they’ll have turned up at the refuge or the shelter with only what they’re standing up in, and what they could carry. When we get an email from a hostel on Christmas Eve to say, ‘the kids have all had a bath, they’re in their pyjamas and we’re just sitting down to watch a film together. Merry Christmas’ that means the world to us.
“We just want these children to be like their friends, even if it’s just for that one night. Things might be very different in lots of ways for them, but with this one thing they shouldn’t have to feel different.”
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