Presents, presents, everywhere...

Presents, presents, everywhere...

What we want to avoid is the situation where a child comes back to school from holidays and is asked by another child: “What did you get?” And they say: “Nothing”.

‘That’s the saddest thing.’
— Robert Williams, founder of The Kindness Offensive

Thousands of underprivileged children are getting a top-quality Christmas gift this year thanks to The Kindness Offensive [TKO].

The group known for orchestrating large-scale random acts of kindness is run by four individuals from a small London office. It has managed to amass hundreds of keen volunteers and thousands of pounds worth of cash and presents to make this a reality – just because.

Now in its fifth year, the annual Christmas TKO event sees volunteers gather in one space to wrap donated gifts for children who deserve them very much.

This year, presents wrapped in the offices of sponsors XL Catlin are being distributed to 27 places. They include youth centres, children’s hospital wards such as Evelina at Guy’s and St Thomas’s, after school clubs such as Kids City, orphanages, day care centres, prison visitor centres and more.

Upon entering the 2015 event I was kitted out in a uniform of plastic hard hat and high-vis vest, before meeting two of the TKO founders, Robert Williams and David Goodfellow.

Robert said: ‘What we want to avoid is the situation where a child comes back to school from holidays and is asked by another child: “What did you get?” And they say: “Nothing”.

‘That’s the saddest thing.’

And it seems many corporate donors agree, as TKO were able to gift 20,000 children with presents thanks to their gifts and cash.

The Offensive core team spends their prep time on the phone contacting companies and persuading them to donate for free; a technique they call ‘phone whispering’.

Several dozen companies have donated gifts this year while others donate cash, with which TKO can buy presents.

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Robert says: ‘The companies that give toys directly to us, we tell them: “Make sure it's the kind of gift that when you give it to a child, it's a great toy as if it's the only thing they'll get”.

Among the bought toys are high-quality, classic wooden toys, handmade especially for the project in the Czech Republic, which can be passed down generations.

He refers to the children receiving the gifts as ‘very deserving’ rather than underprivileged.

‘Their circumstances led them to a situation where everyone is celebrating and they don't get to join in. We want to change that.’

In terms of choosing the places that receive the gifts, TKO look for charities and centres that don't get support otherwise.

TKO gift children from age 0-18, and except for a couple of centres at which present giving is a party and a photocall, gifts are given covertly. Representatives from the rest of the recipient centres pick up the presents themselves for anonymous gifting.

Robert says: ‘We provide the toys for some prison visiting centres and we make sure the child never knows that the toys come from us. We started that about three years ago we thought it was nice. We are trying to cover things that don't get covered.

‘When the presents get to the hospital, the nurses give them out. We feel there's a bit of a stigma to the whole thing of: “Oh, you got your toy from a charity”.

‘We could label all this stuff with badges but we don't do that. We don't allow any of the people that sponsor us to do that. We're trying to make sure that it's a real gift.

Hundreds of volunteers toiled all day wrapping and preparing gifts for children at the TKO.

Hundreds of volunteers toiled all day wrapping and preparing gifts for children at the TKO.

‘We turned down a big company this year who wanted to put leaflets in with the toys because we don’t do publicity in that sense. We don't want people to feel like there's a catch. We don't take donations from individuals - not a penny - and we don't allow advertising.’

At the 2015 event I made my way through the scene of balloons and confetti, soundtracked by a string quartet, and gave wrapping a go at the Guys & St Thomas’s Hospital wrapping station.

It consisted of a sign saying ‘Guy’s’ next to a large mounted photo of children on the ward, piles or wrapped and unwrapped presents, wrapping paper, a table, chairs, sellotape, and scissors (if you’re lucky).

I met volunteers Marcus and Andy who were helping out. I overhead Andy telling a wrapper who’d just arrived: ‘I can get you anything you need! You need paper? I'll get it for you. Sellotape? Got it. Scissors? That's the only thing I can't get you. That's like gold dust in here.’

TKO attracts those who are good and giving and who want to experience the joys of free and uplifting altruism, and it’s this sort of light-hearted can-do attitude that got everyone through the day, working enthusiastically at full speed.

It’s unsurprising that volunteers were all incredibly cheerful, smiley and helpful.

I soon got chatting to Flora, 53, and her partner Emil, 58, who decided to get involved after seeing the 2014 TKO Christmas event broadcast on BBC News.

Flora said: ‘The present wrapping seemed like a lot of fun and a great thing to do for children at Christmas time. It’s also a good way to meet new people. We love doing this sort of thing.’

Many here are self-confessed philanthropists by nature, offering their time for good causes far and wide.

Flora and Emil volunteer at various animal charities including the RSPCA, while art psychotherapy student Anthea volunteers at Great Ormond Street Hospital once a week.

‘The present wrapping seemed like a lot of fun and a great thing to do for children at Christmas time. It’s also a good way to meet new people. We love doing this sort of thing.’
— Flora, Volenteer

Many XL Catlin staff gave hours of their working time to come to wrap presents, including chirpy Vanya Harris, executive director of corporate social responsibility, who glued a teddy bear on top of her hard hat and got completely stuck in and involved.

After a few hours of wrapping, volunteers had the opportunity to jump on a party bus to visit Evelina Hospital and see the children's smiles first hand, and then onto a party at Kids City.

The message of TKO’s annual Christmas gifting event has spread far and it’s now bigger than ever before.

Robert says: ‘Sometimes people come to us, they want to know how they can get toys. They hear about [TKO] from friends.’

Robert and the core TKO team discovered they could generate the power to make underprivileged children happy at Christmas after someone requested their help during Muslim holiday Eid, back in 2008.

‘Somebody called us up saying young Muslim children weren't getting anything for Eid, so we made some calls and sorted it out. We realised we were able to do this sort of thing so that’s how this began.

‘We call it a seasonal event because not everyone celebrates Christmas.’

The core team at TKO start logistical planning for the festive present wrapping event in July or August each year.

Insurance firm XL Catlin were the event's main sponsors - offering up free office space and cash for presents, displays, uniforms, refreshments etc.

Around 300-400 people volunteered for the 2015 project. Many turned up three days before to set up and decorate the area at the XL Catlin London offices for the big wrapping event.

As well as large giveaways, The Kindness Offensive engage in all sorts of ‘random kindness and senseless acts of beauty’, including staging a The Everyday Kindness Awards in 2009.

Over the course of a weekend, actors in public places pretended to need help, and when members of the public stepped up to offer a hand, they received a pop-up celebration rewarding their kindness with champagne, flowers and a gold medal.

In terms of the annual festive gifting event, Robert says: ‘One of the things that we are trying to do is convince people that being kind is fun and that it can be a solution to the world’s problems.

‘We are doing it in a very obvious way but you can join in by doing something very simple.’

Earlier this year we interviewed The Kindness Offensive