I hadn’t really known what to expect when we first opened the doors of our Lodge – Ashfield House in Burton-upon-Trent – to 30 young people who had been invited to spend Christmas lunch with us because they had left care and were living alone. But I realised the importance of that gesture within a couple of hours. It was around the time when all 30 of those young people, plus their carers, were raising their voices and singing along to Christmas carols seemingly without a care in the world
This is not how life is for them the other 364 days of the year. Nor is it how they would usually spend Christmas. In fact, for one young man (we’ll call him Trevor), that lunch was the first time he had ever received a Christmas card.
Not that he opened it to find out what it was all about. Instead, after carefully tearing off the top corner of the envelope to have a tiny peek inside, he tucked it into the pocket of his coat.
‘I’m going to save it for Christmas Day,’ he told me. ‘It’s the only one I’m going to get this year.’
That was three years ago, and it was when I first understood the difference a Christmas lunch would make to the lives of children who had previously been in care. And it was when I truly understood the meaning of the charity we pledge to undertake when joining the Freemasons.
There are plenty of other examples, such as the two sisters who had been sold into prostitution by their own parents and only saw each other when they came to our lunches. Or the young man who walked in shyly and silently with his carer and tried to hide in a room full of people.
One hour later, he was singing along to The 12 Days of Christmas and his carer was in tears. ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever heard him speak,’ she said.
Then there was the young man who walked for hours through the snow when his train was cancelled. He finally arrived three hours late, but was determined not to miss out.
Before COVID, our lunches had become a tradition ever since the leader of Staffordshire County Council’s care-leavers team Trandeep Sethi got in touch to ask if he and his staff could use our Lodge to provide a Christmas meal for the 16-to-25-year-olds they work with.
He offered to pay but we were having none of it. Instead, I told him to bring everyone along and we would do the rest. Thanks to the kindness of a team of volunteers and the generosity of performers who gave us their time for free, we did. And it became something of a Christmas tradition until last year.
As a magistrate for 30 years and a prison inspector for many years too, I have seen a lot. But the stories of these young people really affected me. They are blameless – just trying to live their lives having been given the worst start that any child could have ever had.
Trevor, for example, had been in care since he was eight, simply because his mum had a new boyfriend and didn’t want him any more. Some 10 years later, he was living alone in a bedsit in Lichfield.
These are the children I think about when I sit down at Christmas lunch with my family and the wine is flowing, the food is steaming hot and the presents are waiting for us under the tree.
We are the lucky ones. The least I can do for children who are not so fortunate is to make a difference to their lives once a year. They aren’t the kids in care you read about in the media, who have been caught stealing or attacking someone. Instead, they have grown up through the care system and have then been found homes that are often far away from friends and their families – many of whom are the cause of their problems. They might be living a couple of miles away from you or walking past you in the street.
Because of COVID, we have been unable to provide lunch for the past two years, so we gave everyone hampers instead. I haven’t had the chance to see these young people again and so can only imagine the look on their faces when they open their hamper, find the presents and the Christmas card and, I hope, realise that someone cares about them.
Another aspect I found very rewarding was that we were starting to inspire Freemasons to host lunches in other parts of the UK. No matter what we do in Burton, we are only dealing with a tiny number of young people from the care system, which means that there must be thousands of other across the country who are simply forgotten.
Maybe the Freemason movement can help them to feel remembered? I’d like to think it can. We have a few more plans up our sleeves about how we can help young people at other times of the year as well, but would love to hear from any other Lodges that might want to organise a Christmas meal.
In that respect, we can tell you how it’s done and prepare you for what you need. However, one thing we can’t prepare you for is how you feel when you’re talking to a young man or woman who is sitting down for the first hot meal they have had in days, among more people than they have met in an entire week, and holding the only Christmas card they will receive that year.