ONE of the North-East's best-loved charities may be forced to suspend doorstep collections in a town after a van driver was confronted by a gang of ten youths and had to smash through a road barricade.
The Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS) is facing a difficult decision about whether to continue collecting bags of clothes in the Bowesfield area of Stockton following the attack.
Officials say thieves who steal clothes left for its collectors are costing the service - which needs £4m a year to keep flying - £5,000 a week in lost income.
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But in the latest incident van driver Mick Pollock, of Spennymoor, and his passenger were pinned into a cul-de-sac by a road block made from wheelie bins.
The terrifying confrontation happened in Ellicott Walk, Stockton, last week when Mr Pollock, who is in his 50s, and a colleague were collecting bags full of donated clothing.
They pulled into the road where they caught two young men, thought to be around 17-years-old, helping themselves to the bags.
Mr Pollock confronted them and asked them to put the bags down, which they did although they shouted abusive language. But as he turned round morea gang created a barricade of wheelie bins, trapping the van in the street.
Mr Pollock, a van driver for the GNAA for four years, said: “The mood those lads were in, they were quite violent. I felt very threatened. I don’t frighten easy, but I was scared. ..In the end I decided to smash my way through the barricade.”
Clare Crabtree, of the charity’s trading company, which operates the clothing collections, said she believed the police had been called to the scene by bystanders but the driver was so fearful for his safety that he fled before they arrived.
She added: “The gang was closing in so the driver took the decision to ram the wheelie bins out of the way. He was scared and said he couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
The charity relies on its clothing collections, of about two million tonnes a year, to raise essential funds to keep its three helicopter air ambulances flying. Thefts of donated clothing are now commonplace and are estimated to cost the charity in excess of £5,000 a week. Some shops and collection agencies offer the public about 90p a kilo for bags of clothes and donation bags are increasingly being targeted.
Clare Crabtree, of the charity’s trading company which donates all profits to the GNAA, said: “It is a sorry state of affairs when something like this happens. In fact it’s disgusting. “The driver has been left shaken up by this incident and understandably so, he is in his fifties himself and wouldn’t harm a fly. He shouldn’t have to come to work and end up in a situation like that.
“This area has been a great supporter of our charity over the years but we cannot continue to put our staff at risk.”
The GNAAS Trading Company, sells them by the wagon-load to Poland and other eastern European companies. Each wagon-load is sold for more than £10,000 and last year the company made about £350,000, enough to pay for about 140 air ambulance missions.
A spokesman for the GNAA said the charity receives calls about suspected bag thefts every day. Suspects range from organised gangs in vans sweeping whole streets to women with pushchairs taking the odd bag. He said all GNAA staff carry identification and asked the public to continue donating clothes. He said: “We don’t want this unpleasant incident to put people off giving. These bags of clothing make a huge difference to the charity and we could not cope with the loss of revenue.”
The spokesman explained charity, which is preparing for a fund-raising push as part of Air Ambulance Week from Monday, September 23, often saves lives. For example, he said that a 15-year-old girl air cadet, named only as Sophie from Harrogate, had to be airlifted from Matterdale Common, Cumbria recently after becoming seriously unwell on a walk where she was struggling to breathe.
Meanwhile another charity, Northallerton Safer Neighbourhood team, has said charity shop bins are being targeted in the town. A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “We take very seriously thefts from charities, it is a despicable act.”