Making a Difference

Patrick gets lots of love - and support - from his Assistance Dog Holly Assistance Dogs NI receive a grant from Black Santa.On the first Sunday in February each year, representatives of more than 200 charities receive a slice of a cashcake of almost 200,000 raised by the Black Santa Sitout.

The funds have been gathered over the course of a year, with the lion's share of the donations to the Black Santa Appeal coming during the annual Christmas Sitout by the Dean of Belfast and members of the Cathedral Chapter and staff on the steps of St Anne's in the 8 days before Christmas.

When Dean Sammy Crooks staged his first Christmas Sitout in 1976, his slogan was 'Give and let live. Save the children, feed the hungry, heal the sick.'

Almost four decades later, Black Santa is still helping children, the hungry, and the sick. The funds raised outside the Cathedral are put to good use in the community by the charities who receive them. As Dean John Mann said of the Good Samaritans Service back in 2013, "The spotlight today turns from the giver of funds to those who put the money raised to good effect."

The following examples show how some of the beneficiaries of the Black Santa Appeal use their grants for the benefit of others.



Becca and Honey.A grant from Black Santa will help Assistance Dogs NI to buy necessary equipment for five pups currently in training for a role which will literally transform life for their new owners.

The charity, run by 15 volunteers, places assistance dogs with families of a child with autism or an individual with a disability. The dogs soon become much loved pets, and are trained in a range of supportive skills including loading and unloading a washing machine, switching lights on and off, opening and closing doors, and providing a 'safety anchor' for children who are harnessed to them outdoors.

The dogs help improve access and mobility and promote independence, improving the quality of life for individuals and families. They address challenging behaviour, help children to express their emotions and articulate their needs, and give people a reason to go outside encouraging social activity and reducing isolation.

To date Assistance Dogs NI has placed five dogs, two with wheelchair users and three with children with autism. Although the five new pups will soon join their owner, the charity still has a four year waiting list.

Two of the children who have already received an assistance dog have their own Facebook pages, where people can follow life in the households of Becca and her dog Honey, and Zach and his best friend Jack.

Becca's mum Michelle explained the difference Honey has made in Becca's life. "Becca suffered from severe violent meltdowns... Becca also self-harmed from four-years-old. Since we got Honey this has all ended. Honey has made a huge impact on Becca. Our daughter is now happier and much more confident."

Sharon, whose daughter Beth has an assistance dog, said: "This wonderful dog has given Beth a new-found independence. In a sense he has given our family peace of mind too. We know that Beth is his priority and he is always there for her. He is a miracle worker."




Last year's Black Santa grant allowed Sightlines to run a seminar to help blind people use the technology which will bring theartre and arts to life for them.A Black Santa grant will help Sightlines bring theatre to life for some 500 blind people. The charity makes theatre, dance exhibitions and events accessible to blind people describing the essential visual elements.

Programme notes describing characters, costumes and sets are distributed in advance along with a script which the blind person listens to on a headset, enabling them to respond to visual information at the same time as a sighted person.

A spokesperson said: "They laugh and cry at the same time as their friends. This inclusion enables everyone to enjoy the art event to the full."

The Black Santa money will be used to train people to use the technology so that every visit to the theatre is a positive experience. A similar grant from Black Santa last year funded a training session held in the Grand Opera House for 15 blind and partially sighted people.




Fintona Senior Citizens, who receive a Black Santa grant, during a recent outing.Fintona is one of the most deprived areas of Omagh and research shows many people suffer from social exclusion and loneliness due to the rural isolation in which they live. A Black Santa grant to Fintona Senior Citizens Club will allow the club to join up with other clubs in neighbouring areas for activities like boccia, getting members active and interacting socially.

The Club also plans to run outings to places of interest like museums and the theatre. As many of the club's members have mobility problems, the grant will grant will help cover the costs of transport to activities and outings.





Enjoying a therapeutic break at Daisy Lodge.Daisy Lodge is Cancer Fund for Children's brand new short break centre at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. It offers a relaxing, therapeutic break for a young person and their family before, during or after treatment for cancer.

Every week in Northern Ireland three children, teenagers or young adults are diagnosed with cancer. Their immediate future will involve countless trips to hospital, tests, chemotherapy and for some radiotherapy and surgery. Daisy Lodge is the only facility of its kind in the UK and Ireland. It has six double family suites, four therapy suites, play centres to suit all ages, lounges, a restaurant and even a home cinema.

Many families visit Daisy Lodge during a break in their child's treatment to relax and re-energise in preparation for the next stage in their cancer journey. Some chose to spend a portion of their last few weeks with their terminally ill child at Daisy Lodge, treasuring each moment and creating precious memories. It is a chance to meet others living similar lives, reducing feelings of isolation.

A charity spokesperson said: "The fight against the illness can feel like a lonely place at times. Just knowing that someone is there to offer support and help is invaluable. The privacy, rest and being able to relax in wonderful surroundings is priceless."

The Black Santa funding will help provide a weekend break at Daisy Lodge for two families, giving them quality time together away from hospitals and treatment regimes.




A Black Santa grant is to help a charity which works with women to overcome their mental health issues. Financial difficulties forced Carrickfergus Women's Forum to downsize last October, and move into smaller rented accommodation.

This small community based organisation works directly with women who have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders to help them understand and work through the issues that are at the root of their problems. It has set up a programme called YANA (You Are Not Alone) and continues to deliver this vital service.

However, the charity is having to keep much of its furniture in storage, and the storage cost is a big drain on its resources. The Women's Forum will use the grant to cover the monthly storage costs, stopping the drain on the resources it needs to support the women who turn to the Forum for help.

As spokesperson said: "Running costs are among the most difficult costs to get covered by funders."




A meal provided by NICRAS.During the Black Santa Sitout, the Dean of Belfast and the clergy who support him have to stand on the steps of St Anne's Cathedral whatever the weather. But at the end of the day, they can return home to heat and a meal. For some refugees and asylum seekers in Northern Ireland, the street is their home, and they may not know where their next meal is coming from.

A Black Santa grant will allow NICRAS, the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, to make life a little more bearable for some of those facing hardship in a community that is not yet home.

NICRAS used last year's grant to alleviate some of the stress faced by refugees and asylum seeks who found themselves destitute. The charity gave small cash handouts of 10 so people could buy food, and also stocked nappies and formula for mothers not able to manage on the payments from the National Asylum Support Service (NASS).

NICRA offers advice to refugees and asylum seekers.A spokesperson said: "Many single individuals who have been refused asylum and sleep rough rely on food banks and charities like NICRAS. We at NICRAS advocate and offer some kind of reassurance and support to these individuals, providing a welcoming environment and some cash to relieve deprivation in a very small way."

The charity also proposes to use some of the funding to continue its International Food Days once a month, with different cultures undertaking the task of cooking. The charity said this promotes integration within refugee communities and gives the person doing the cooking a sense of pride.

The Black Santa funding will help NICRAS to alleviate some of the stress and emotional turmoil poverty and destitution can generate within the asylum seekers and refugee community.




Young people learn new skills at Project 23.Project 23 is run by the Link Family and Community Centre and works with marginalised young people from areas of high deprivation in Newtownards, providing them with a safe place to go. Through one-to-one support, structured workshops and programmes and residentials, Project 23 helps young people deal with issues including misuse of drugs and alcohol, risky sexual behaviour and low self esteem.

A grant from Black Santa will be used for Project 23's Young Parents Support Programme which offers support to pregnant young women, and to young fathers. It will fund an awareness session on post-natal depression and contribute to the cost of a drop-in facility, helping young parents cope with their new responsibilities.

The Link Centre was established in 1997. A spokesperson said: "Our overarching aim is to improve community well being and to bring about positive change and growth in human lives. We do this as an expression of our Christian concern, this is what motivates our engagement with social issues."





Cahoots NI theatre company, based in Belfast, uses magic, illusion and live music to present quality original work to young children across Northern Ireland. The Black Santa funding will allow Cahoots NI to continue to take their 'Magic Menu' show into the homes of children receiving treatment for cancer.

Cahoots NI artists take live theatre into the homes of children receiving treatment for cancer.
The idea for the 'Magic Menu' came about when Cahoots NI performed a show at a children's cancer respite centre. After the performance a member of staff commented that not all children in treatment can enjoy an outing because concerns about infection keep them isolated at home. This prompted Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney, founder and artistic director of Cahoots NI, to create a bespoke project which would be taken directly to the family in their home, allowing them to enjoy a magical piece of theatre.

Cahoots NI collaborates with the NI Cancer Fund for Children to deliver the project which aims to provide laughter, happy memories and good old fashioned fun for children who have spent much time in isolation for fear of infection, and for the whole family at a time of great upheaval in all their lives.

The mother of one little girl, Joy, who has enjoyed two Cahoots home visits, said it had been "such a brilliant and uplifting day which opened up Joy's mind and expanded it beyond the limits of family home life."

The funding from Black Santa will go towards artists' costs, helping Cahoots NI to continue to deliver this project which has been making a difference in the lives of children with cancer since 2012.




The Huntington's Disease Association receives a grant to help reduce the social isolation of sufferers of this incurable genetic condition. There is an established connection between the illness and depression and suicide. The funding will support the charity's new befriending service, which offers excursions and social events for people affected by Huntington's Disease and their carers.

The scheme was piloted last year, and had a positive impact on all who took part. A spokesperson for the Association said: "The events were not high value in terms of the expense but were very high value in terms of the participants feeling loved, cared for and valued as individuals.

"The sheer joy and increased optimism experience by those taking part was remarkable. Their mood was lifted and remains high in anticipation of further such events which would take them, however temporarily, out of a 'four walls' existence."




Fun for older people during a visit by Live Music Now musicians.Older people in rural care homes are able to enjoy live music without the hassle of travel, thanks to a project by Live Music Now. A Black Santa grant will support this programme, which is also delivered to people with disabilities and learning difficulties in six day centres in the Belfast Health Trust.

Live Music Now supports Northern Irish musician at the beginning of their professional careers, providing music activity in schools for children with special educational needs and for older people living in care and in the community.

This can be in the form of musician in residence projects in schools, participatory performances in care homes, and songs and scones sessions in community venues.

The charity has recently recruited three new ensembles of Northern Irish musicians, and the funding will help it further develop its work with older people.




Paul Kane of the Oh Yeah Music Centre with Danny O'Connor (85) in Andersonstown's Ballyowen Day Centre.Oh Yeah Music Centre has worked with young people for many years, but in recent times it has been pioneering work with older generations. A grant from Black Santa will enable Oh Yeah to run a project around the 50th anniversary of the Maritime Hotel, a popular Rhythm and Blues venue with featured artists life Van Morrison, Them, Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore to name but a few.

The charity plans to document through spoken word, dance and creative writing the memories people have of not only the Maritime but of dance halls, clubs, clothes, music and a way of life in pre-Troubles Northern Ireland.

Paul Kane of the Oh Yeah Music Centre with a group of ladies from the Ballyowen Day Centre (average age 95) during a previous project.The project will form the basis of a live show in the Oh Yeah Music Centre for participants and the public. A spokesperson said: "We have found that older people engage very happily in discussions around music and live debate ensues as memories are built upon by groups. We have discovered that it helps build confidence, encourages greater social involvement, reduces isolation and allows those involved to share wonderful memories."

Oh Yeah also hopes that the information gathered as part of this project can be collated into a booklet.




In Northern Ireland it is estimated that at least one in six couples may have difficulty having a child. Infertility can be a devastating experience which can cause enormous emotional pain, and a Black Santa grant to Infertility Network UK will fund two fertility support workshops in Craigavon, and a More to Life workshop in Belfast.

Infertility Network Chief Executive, Susan Seenan, left, and colleague Sharon Davidson at a recent information day.The Craigavon workshops will target people dealing with infertility. A spokesperson said: "The feeling of having no control over whether you get pregnant leaves couples feeling helpless. The whirlwind of emotions that infertility brings can feel overwhelming, therefore it is extremely important that people take care of their mental health and well-being as well as their physical health."

The More to Life workshop will support those who have 'reached a point of acceptance' on their infertility, bringing people together to look at their strengths, interests, motivation and set objectives to help them reach a place of greater happiness and fulfilment.