When Pat McBride heard first-hand the way unemployment can send families into poverty and despair she was determined to do something to let them know many of their fellow Teessiders cared.
The French teacher worked with pupils at her school to organise 25 Christmas hampers to be donated to local families in crisis. It was the start of something amazing.
This year is the 29th successive Christmas that Marton-based Pat has organised hampers for local people living in poverty or short-term crisis.
Over the years Pat and a team of helpers have inspired thousands of schoolchildren to join them in helping to provide well over 5,000 hampers to the most underprivileged Teesside people.
And her incredible voluntary work has been recognised with a Teesside Hero Award, presented by charitable movement, Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation.
David Carter of Stockton firm Carter Steel, the Foundation’s newest patrons, surprised Pat with her award at an assembly with students at Trinity Catholic College, presenting the retired teacher with a trophy and £1,000 for her charity, Cause.
Pat, now 73, recalled: “The inspiration for what I and so many others now do was a pastoral council meeting when a young woman called Carol, who I became good friends with, got up and spoke about the impact of her husband being unemployed.
“She told us how they had sunk into depths of despair, but had been lifted out of it by acts of kindness and love.
“That year I worked with pupils at Newlands School, where I was teaching, and got together 25 hampers.”
That number quickly grew to 200-300 hampers a year with 15 schools across Teesside now taking part, helping families nominated by the schools themselves as well as Social Services.
This year, for the first time, Pat has taken the campaign onto Facebook with the support of her great niece.
“I totally underestimated the power of social media,” laughed Pat. “We have 500 hampers, making it our biggest ever year.
“Many people who remember helping in their schooldays have got back in touch through Facebook to say they wanted to be involved again, as well as many complete strangers helping out.”
Within schools, classes ‘adopt’ a family and compile personalised hampers of food, toys and other gifts.
Middlesbrough-born Pat, who was a teacher for 38 years, 27 of them at Newlands, added: “We can’t solve their problems or change their lives by giving them hampers but it does show them that we care, and that can sometimes be a light in their life.
“Sadly, I think the problems are worse now than when we first started nearly 30 years ago.
“I know many don’t see it but many Teessiders are desperately struggling for money and food, sometimes long-term and often during a short-term crisis due to a mother or father losing their job or being unable to work due to illness.
“It makes me angry and it makes me sad but it’s the reality.
“Fortunately, there’s a tremendous spirit of generosity out there.
“Giving in this way brings the whole community together and shows people that we care. Those we help say how much it matters that people they don’t know care enough about them and their children to do something like this.
“We all read plenty of negatives about young people nowadays but all those I speak to around the schools say how much they enjoy putting the hampers together for families.”
Whilst admitting to being “shocked and overwhelmed” by her Teesside Hero Award, she added: “I’ve met so many people who are equally worthy of something like this, so I accepted the award on behalf of the team of people who help.”
Former pupil Lyndsey McGeary, now a married mum-of-two, who nominated Pat, said: “Long before the emergence of food banks, Pat recognised that the effects of poverty in our area meant some children went without food and presents on Christmas day.
“She has coordinated the whole effort selflessly for 29 years, often putting her own Christmas preparations on hold. Her work is entirely voluntary and extremely generous.”