One very special day for those in need

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Mary-Rose French, Christmas Inn Co-ordinator and trustee of CARE Highams Park Mary-Rose French, Christmas Inn Co-ordinator and trustee of CARE Highams Park

For one very special day each and every year, a voluntary organisation opens its doors and becomes family for the homeless people of the borough.

A team of volunteers sacrifice their Christmas Day to provide a traditional Christmas dinner and entertainment at CARE Highams Park, an organisation of volunteers set-up and funded by Churches Together.

For the past 25 years, volunteers including chefs, drivers, and entertainers, have worked with Christmas Inn, the CARE programme, to arrange and host a free day of festive fun for up 100 guests at Highams Park Methodist Church in Winchester Road.

On the day, drivers pick up the guests and drive them to the church where there is an optional Christmas service at 10:30am. There are two sittings on the day, whereby guests are treated to a traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

Once the guests have filled their tummies, they gather together in the main hall to watch the Queen’s speech, take part in a raffle draw, drink tea, eat mince pies, and watch performances from entertainers.

Christmas Inn Co-ordinator and trustee of CARE Highams Park, Mary-Rose French, 69, has been organising and hosting the Christmas Day event since 1997.

In those 16 years, she has only ever had one year off, due to an injury to her ankle. She said: “I’m very lucky to have the choice and to have been able to do this. I got involved because I wanted to give back something, and was aware that there was a need for this in our community.

“Anytime there is something to celebrate and be with others, it is also a lonely time for a lot of people.

“So, for one day of the year, we effectively become their family.”

Over the years, many of the referrals have come from homeless centres, charities and outreach programmes.

Florence Must, 92, of Connington Crescent in Highams Park, started attending Christmas Inn two years after her husband passed away in 2003. 

“I spent the first two Christmas’ as a widow eating takeaway dinners all alone in front of the TV. I never had a phone call or an invitation to be with anyone else, my daughter and son live abroad.

“I started going to Christmas Inn after I was invited one year, and every year since has been marvellous. They work so hard, and go out of their way every year to make us feel so comfortable and welcome.”

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