A NORTH-EAST shopping centre has taken its giving tree online after lockdown meant customers could not help children in need - but it soon gained traction and went national, with its founder appearing on BBC Breakfast. 

Hartlepool Giving Tree was set up by Middleton Grange Shopping Centre manager Mark Rycraft ten years ago but has been taken online in the face of Covid. The idea is simple - take a tag off the tree and buy a present for the person it describes.

While the in-store tree has delivered presents to 750 children every year for the last decade, the online version has exploded in popularity, with some 100,000 people from around the world pledging to help those in need. 

Mr Rycraft is now partnering with regional and national causes to give festive donations to as many people as possible, not just in Hartlepool.

The 50-year-old said: "It was first to give back to the community but with Covid and the lockdown we realised customers would not come in and grab a tag so we took it online.

"We expected about 1,500 pledged but are on over 99,000 at the moment."

The Northern Echo: Some of the donations so far in the 'workshop'Some of the donations so far in the 'workshop'

Whilst speaking to The Northern Echo, the number of pledges ticked over to 100,000, giving Mr Rycraft "goosebumps".

He added: "There are so many young people or those in care who don't have essentials or a ball to kick around. 

"There are a lot of people under the radar and those who access services that need some love, care and attention.

"We had designated families but then we realised we have the capacity to help even more people so we've done a lot of research into what presents children, and even older people in care homes, want so we have created 'boy' and 'girl' tags and can then donate presents we know people will want.

Mr Rycraft, who has been the centre manager for 14 years, has worked with domestic violence charity Hartlepool Harbour since he first launched the giving tree. 

He said: "After speaking with Hartlepool Harbour, I realised that there are that won't get a gift. 

"I started the tree because I realised as a shopping centre we are a major part of the community so we had the resources to bring ideas and people together, and serve the community. 

"We have done an awful lot within Hartlepool since I have been here, including work in schools and special need schools. It reflects our ethic of giving something back.

"I am utterly and completely humbled and overwhelmed at Hartlepool Giving Tree's success."

The Northern Echo: Mr Rycraft now wants to expand the project nationallyMr Rycraft now wants to expand the project nationally

Mr Rycraft, who has created a 'workshop' on the first floor of an empty retail unit in the shopping centre to collect donations, thanked everyone for their support on the project.

Hartlepool website creators In Studio built and are running the website for free, while centre employees helping to sort donations are being called elves. 

The project has had the backing of the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who shared the site on his Twitter feed.

Mr Houchen said: “The coronavirus pandemic has impacted on everyone but it has made life extremely difficult for those less fortunate, especially in the winter months.

“Making the Hartlepool Giving Tree virtual this year was an excellent idea and I am delighted to be able to support it again. It is great to see the people of Hartlepool pulling together like they have always done to help their own and make sure children, whatever their circumstances, can have a happy Christmas this year.”

Anyone wishing to get involved should visit www.hartlepoolgivingtree.co.uk and post donations to the shopping centre, 26 Middleton Grange Shopping Centre, TS24 7RZ.