A Christmas appeal, launched jointly by County Durham Community Foundation and Durham Cathedral, is spreading desperately needed ‘Comfort and Joy’ during difficult times...

SUNNISIDE isn’t exactly living up to its name. At 1,000 feet above sea level, it’s one of the highest villages in County Durham, and it’s a cold, dismal winter’s afternoon.

But, while the sunny side of the street is well hidden by the dark cloak of December, there’s warmth on the way.

As well as wearing a bright blue facemask, eight-year-old Elizabeth Ritson-Neilson, is wrapped up warm in her pink coat and matching bobble hat, as she knocks on a door to deliver a festive box of biscuits to 85-year-old Sheila Brown.

“Oh, how lovely,” smiles Sheila, a widow for 25 years. “I can’t thank you enough.”

The delivery is part of the “Comfort and Joy” appeal, launched by the County Durham Community Foundation (CDCF) in partnership with Durham Cathedral. The name is well chosen because the appeal is helping to tackle hardship and isolation that have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s a simple but heart-warming idea. In return for a £7 donation, a Christmas card, featuring the cathedral and signed by the Dean of Durham, Andrew Tremlett, will be sent to a stranger. For £10, a card goes to a loved-one who may be feeling lonelier than usual. For an extra fiver, you can do both.

The donations raise money for the community foundation’s Covid-19 Recovery Fund and ongoing work at the cathedral. The cards are then distributed through partnerships with six grass roots organisations:

• Faith In Our Community – serving faith-based community projects across the North-East

• PACT House – a community hub and food bank in Stanley

• Women Today North East – supporting BAME women

• Lifeline Community Action – providing baby packs and cleaning packs for low-income families

• Handcrafted Projects – supporting homeless people

• Just For Women – supporting women living with domestic abuse


Sunniside, in Weardale – not to be confused with Sunniside near Gateshead, or the district of Sunderland that bears the same name – is one of the communities benefitting through Faith In Our Community, which, in turn, has linked up with Sunniside Community Association.

The result is that, on December 16, hot lunches will be cooked at The Moss Inn and delivered to 40 or so elderly people, who are living alone. In the meantime, boxes of biscuits, are also being distributed as an additional treat.

Claire Ritson, project officer for Faith In Our Community and a volunteer at Sunniside Community Centre, is well placed to assess the importance of the appeal as she watches daughter, Elizabeth, having a doorstep chat with Sheila Brown.

“There’s so much deprivation and isolation, and Covid-19 has made it far worse,” says Claire. “People have dignity, and the deliveries are always made in a very respectful way, as acts of love. It’s a way of letting them know we are here for them.”

The appeal is a real family affair in Sunniside because Claire’s mum, Liz Mather, is treasurer of the community association, and a driving force in the local support network. She recently galvanised a fundraising campaign that raised £30,000 for a village play area, and plans are underway to provide an outdoor gym.

During the summer, Faith In Our Community, with the support of a £5,000 grant from the County Durham Community Foundation, was at the heart of yet another appeal – this time providing struggling families with school uniforms.

More than 600 packs – comprising socks, underwear, polo shirts, t-shirts, shorts or skirts – were given out, with Liz’s house used as the collection point.

“I couldn’t see a piece of furniture for all the clothes,” she laughs. “If it hadn’t been for County Durham Community Foundation, we couldn’t do anywhere near as much.”

In addition to Sunniside, families in Bishop Auckland, Burnopfield, Tow Law, Willington, Shildon, and Easington also benefited. The aim is to repeat the initiative next summer, even though coronavirus will, hopefully, be under control by then.

But, for now, the focus is on Christmas, and the kindness will be widespread. As well as what’s happening in Sunniside, Faith In Our Community is working with a variety of other groups: Shildon Alive; Café Together, in Easington; Stockton Hope; and St Columba’s Church community project, in Billingham.

In Shildon, the Durham Cathedral Christmas cards will go out with food parcels. In Easington, there’ll be takeaway meals. And in Stockton and Billingham, volunteers will deliver “Christmas box packages” – comprising a nutritious lunch, treats, hats, gloves and scarves.

It’s a sad reality that many of the recipients would have no one, were it not for the network of dedicated community volunteers spreading comfort and joy this Christmas.

As she gratefully accepts her box of biscuits, Sheila Brown knows she’s one of the luckier ones. She has a son who visits regularly, and her beloved Jack Russell – Jack – for company.

Nevertheless, the knock on her door from young Elizabeth still makes her day. “It’s such a nice, caring thing to do – real community spirit,” says Sheila, with a happy smile.

It’s just gone 4pm and the night is already drawing in, but there’s a ray of sunshine after all on a winter’s day in Sunniside.

• To make someone’s day, visit www.localgiving.org/charity/durhamcathedral/project/Comfort-and-Joy/

LAST week’s column kicked off a party game – using five words to spell out T.R.U.M.P.

I’m delighted to say entries have flooded in – far too many than I have space for.

In the interests of fairness, I have to acknowledge that there was one pro-Trump suggestion from Alastair Welsh: Tenure, Righteous, Ultimate, Magisterial, Popular.

The rest weren’t quite so complimentary, including one from Anne Brown, in Thirsk: Tiresome, Rude, Unprincipled, Myopic, Poseur.

Wendy Acres went for: Terrifying, Revolting, Untruthful, Megalomaniac, Perfidious.

It then went TransAtlantic, with Wendy’s Canadian cousin wading in with three: Terribly, Rude, Ugly, Malicious, Prat...Troublesome, Ranting, Unpleasant, Mercenary, Philistine...Thoroughly, Repulsive, Utterly, Mindless, Pomposity.

Meanwhile, Darlington Liberal Democrat councillor, Malcolm Dunstone, took the game in a new – closer to home – direction with: Bungling, Opportunistic, Ramshackle, Incompetent, Struggling.

This could run and run.

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