Salmon, Sharks and Fishnet Tights
I would like to acknowledge all those who helped To Children With Love get through the last year and give you some insight into how a small, hardworking charity operates. So, to all those who donated to TCWL in the past 12 pandemic months, whether it was €5 or €500, I really hope you read this message. Like it or criticise it, the following is us. We make no apology for how we do things, as we do it with only one thing in mind, the wellbeing of the children we work with.
It is very early on Sunday morning, the sun is rising as I type, it’s just a beautiful day. I am slightly incapacitated with half a new knee, which has slowed me down a bit, but not completely . Four months ago, I got a new hip. I have worn my body down and need new parts. I guess over 4 million travel miles with ridiculous luggage of every type, airports, trains, small cars, bad road accidents, ice and snow has had an impact. It is now official; I am Generation JS – Jamie Somers, the Bionic Woman to anyone under 50! I have decided that the snowflakes are so last year. Once I am past this glitch, there will be no stopping me.
I want to thank those who helped us through the challenges of the past 15 months. It has been brutal to be honest, but we handled it like salmon swimming up the worst river. We knew we had a destination and we knew we had to get there. As an Irish Registered Charity, we did not qualify for the CRSS payment like the rest of the country and rents were a huge problem for us. I guess landlords also have bills to pay, but with doors closed until now and no customers to balance the money flowing out of our account, other than from you all online, we were genuinely worried about paying rents when we had very little income. The Board discussed it often, we knew we were on a thread. Some landlords are understanding, some not so, which was the case all over Ireland. As ever, our Board made the right decisions and we did our utmost to please our two landlords. We are good people and my Board are super ethical, so we paid all the bills we could. Many assumed we were not paying rent throughout the last year, but we were. Many were, many were not. It was a killer for small businesses, but it was worse for a charity. As I said, we had no CRSS grant to help us. Grants have recently been put in place for Charity shops. We have applied and are waiting with fingers crossed.
Needless to say, our homes became our office, our phones and laptops became our lifelines, but we worried while paying rents and other bills. We had magnifying glasses on our spreadsheets etc., and so little coming in.
Charity is interesting really. People want to know that all their funds are going directly to the children or to saving donkeys or whatever your choice of charity is. This is just not fully possible, as we are running a business with costs. These costs allow us to bring in more funds and keep the whole thing afloat. It is not as simple as “Here is my tenner, please make sure it all goes directly to a child”. I wish it were that simple.
I watched the whole Bothair charity news story in horror last week. I have been in the charity arena since 1998 and I still do not know how this man, supported by a Board member, reportedly siphoned over 800k into their own bank accounts. I am not stupid or naive, I realize how money can be mishandled, but how €800k can go missing without a bookkeeper, accountant or auditor noticing is still beyond my brainpower. Not only that, but how any human can think that it is right to line their own pockets from donations, on top of their salary and fat pension.
For those of you that help us, this is a snapshot of our internal operations. We are not delivering cows to Africa or raising millions like Bothair, but every penny is watched and monitored, first off by Jenny in the office, then we have a part-time, hawkeyed bookkeeper Louise over Jenny, who watches all that Jenny does. Following that, we have volunteer Fergal, the accountant who has been hard on us since 1998 and insists on certain levels of governance that drive me mad but has paid off again and again. Then we have an independent auditor who is over Fergal and watches and audits everything annually. We also have a volunteer lawyer, Mel, who thankfully has very little to do except watch out for us and put up with me and my random cacophony of questions about different issues, as well as a go-to volunteer psychotherapist, Joanna, who I contact when I have real worries about a child.
Try and slide €800k out of that system and into your pocket and you are better than me at figuring that one out. People need to choose carefully when donating. You must trust those you donate to for sure. Meet them, talk to them, meet their accountants, meet their Board members, see if they are in the wide-awake club and have not been sitting on the Board forever without watching every move that the charity makes. Every move we make, or I make is run past our non-paid, active wide-awake Board.
Big charities have PR teams and marketing people who do lovely pie charts on their websites to make the admin look fabulous, etc. Trust me, there are ways to make everything look amazing if you can afford fancy pie chart designers and there are ways of making things look fantastic for donors. It is usually cleverly designed to attract big funds. Costs are hidden in all sorts of fancy wording. It must be that way or people would be shocked at the real operational costs.
So, leaving all the big boys to one side, I want to say a big THANK YOU for getting us through the pandemic. We had no idea how to set up our shops online, but we struggled through it. Our volunteer, Maria Tuohy, has had our online shop open for a year, day and night and just look at it – classy, stylish designer stuff coming out of our ears! You could close your eyes and choose the stuff, it is so gorgeous. We have to tell her off when she’s answering texts at 11pm at night, on bank holidays, even Christmas Day, but she ploughed on. She patiently replies to texts, such as ‘Do you think they would fit me?”, “Could you try on those boots and send me a pic?” and “Is that a stretchy size 14, as I am an 18, do you think it would fit me?” endlessly. I would not have her patience or niceness! She then decided to ‘Thriftify’ us, another glam platform, which is working so well for us, although the work she put in was ridiculous, with endless, endless unpaid hours for a full year.
Lisa was employed by us two years ago and has spent a year of that on Covid, however, she replies to every email I send, tidies up all my blogs, as I do not like grammar and full stops and can generally be very un-PC. She shines me up to look better than I really am, ran all our raffles with Jenny and, right now, is working with me to try and get a letter to Oprah, as I just have to connect to her about her new book – now that is a task.
Our shop girls are chomping at the bit to start cleaning, with all of them sending daily texts to us with ideas and cheerful messages of joy about opening again. They have the Cillit Bang ready to scour everything before we get out doors open again.
We didn’t qualify for the big charity slots on the Late Late or roll in the millions that Pieta House or St. Vincent de Paul did, but that’s ok with us. The big sharks like them have huge projects, much bigger than ours, however, they also have millions in their banks. For this I am jealous, but I get it, they are giants in the business, and we are little fish. Their work is generally in Ireland and their PR staff are brilliant at rolling in the dosh. We simply do not have their staff. We are tiny, but we are happy to be, however we do not run an operation where no one misses €800k, that’s 800,000 Euros, think about that.
Last March, we all sat in our gardens in the sun, a silent world. I really did not know if we could get through this, as we lived on a thread of funds as it was. I know we should have huge projections, vision and goals, etc., but it has all been so fragile lately that we really do firefight rather than plan years ahead.
Russia was the worry, as our many magnificent children are so used to seeing us. We texted them daily and Instagrammed. We have a young, dynamic manager there, who was originally one of our orphans. She is really something and sees herself as part of our Irish family. She spends wisely, every rouble receipted and overseen by another volunteer, who spreadsheets all that she does, and all that is then overseen by me, then Jenny, then Louise, then Fergal, then the auditors. We are rocks to the children, we are their go-to people and we must remain that until we are no longer needed.
So, tiny us. What does tiny get you with To Children With Love? We have not turned down one request from a child this year, pandemic or no. We have helped single mothers to raise their babies, we have just recently met one of our boys at the prison gates after 6 years for an insignificant crime and helped him get back on track. Did he look like a good marketing campaign? Definitely not, but he is gentle, lost, with no one in the world to love him and he reached out to us. Of course, we helped him.
We bought nappies, food, shoes, toys, art equipment, books, supported medical needs, Zoomed into the orphanage with one of Russia’s biggest TV stars to brighten their silent, dull isolation. As you saw last week, we bussed 100 children to the circus as I was determined to put colour back into their dreams and who better than clowns and sparkly trapeze girls to do this? I still remember seeing dancing trapeze girls in Fossetts in the car park of the GAA hall on Collins Avenue as a child, the glam of that location , but I still remember the magic of their fishnet tights and sparkly little tutus.
We kept up our pizza meetings wherever we could, lockdown or not, as our pizza sessions are our life coaching moments really. That is when we can get our teeth into the children’s problems. All the worries come out during a good pizza session. We answered every message from every child on social media (over 18). We sorted all their needs right through the pandemic.
I have just finished Oprah’s book with Bruce D. Perry ‘What happened to you? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing’. It is a Bible for anyone working in childcare. Her main message is that you never ask, “What is wrong with that child?”. You ask, “What happened to that child?”. It is an aha moment for sure when you do this and, to be honest, we have always done it that way be default. “Given love, the unloved can become loving” Dr. Bruce Perry says. I totally agree and I have no doubt so many of the children we have worked with would agree, as so many are now loving Mammies and Daddies.
The endless blood sweat and tears of all TCWL staff, volunteers and carers have changed thousands of lives, without any fancy pie charts or huge marketing teams. They are good people, committed and dedicated to those we care for to a ridiculous level, but fuck it, that is us, and we make no apology to anyone about how we operate. We do everything with laser focus, trained by the best over decades. We use a magnifying glass to make sure it is done right, and it is a passion that all of us involved share.
This week alone we have lovely customers shopping online. We received a donation of €1300 from the magnificent human beings at Inverin in Connemara, who have had our backs since 1998 via our magnificent Mairtin. We had a Teddy Mission fundraiser run by a lovely girl who believes in all that we do. We have had random donations online from €5 to €100. Each one is precious, each one treasured by us and spent wisely by our two young managers here and abroad, overseen by me and the Board.
We have our magic fairy volunteer Aedeen from Wicklow ordering the most stunning new window displays for our shops’ reopening and texting ideas daily about paint colours, floor surfaces, indoor displays, in fact, just last night we were designing the Christmas windows and plotting what’s needed. She is chomping at the bit to get new windows done. In fairness, I may be a bit biased, but our windows are by far the best in the country when it comes to charity shops and we have the awards to prove it.
Supervalu have just told us this week that they will sponsor a children’s book that I wrote last year to be finished and published. It is about the magnificent carved tree on the corner of St Anne’s Park and the seafront in Dublin 3. The book is only for little ones, but I felt compelled to capture its magic from the day I saw the tree carver begin. That will be ready on the shelves in Supervalu for Christmas, so that is lovely news and hopefully it helps the charity bank balance.
Meanwhile, our Irish Project, The Rising Tide, is run by Rachel, again, on Covid payments all year, but she never switched off. She gathered endless laptops, applied for grants, answered all students queries, set up extra-curricular classes, sought out different stimulation stuff online to help them, set up our first mentoring of college kids, did all the CAO paperwork, offered endless advice to students who are on our scholarship programme and some who have already left it and was on my phone nearly every day. She is a joy to work with.
I cannot imagine the changes we could make to so many more if we were among the elite that get all the media attention, but we are happy to be small, tightly governed, passionate, and an exceptionally easy charity to be involved with if you really want to make a difference to a child who needs it. There is no bitching, no politics, no internal fighting, ever, in our organisation. We are all on the one page and we are all too busy with our jobs changing lives to even think about how someone allegedly gets away with €800k unnoticed. Sorry lads, small is good. We make dynamic changes with amazing volunteers, a tiny staff, and with all of your support. So that is us in a nutshell. I have just detailed the whole team and how it works.
THANK YOU from all of us. We help children to change their lives, as do each of you who supports us. Here’s to better times and here’s to our beautiful shops reopening on 17th of May. We are dying to get back to normal business.
It has been some year, but it is nearly behind us now and yahoooo, we have just booked our first event in Clontarf Castle for 10th of December. Ladies, dump the leggings and runners, we need to overdo the sparkle! Our first event in one and a half years. Contact us at info@tochildrenwithlove if you would like a Christmas event in your diary. That will be a day out!