DURING nearly 40 years in journalism, I’ve seen lots of good ideas and plenty of bad ones. The Great Parks Auction was definitely one of the better ones.

It started in March at Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington when four local companies, Capita, Cummins, Darlington Building Society and EE came together for an auction with a difference.

Auctions normally work on the basis of financial bids being made. In this one, the bids were for the number of hours each company was prepared to commit in terms of their staff volunteering to work in four local parks.

It was all a bit of fun, of course, with yours truly cast as auctioneer David Dickinson, complete with orange make-up. There was, however, a serious outcome, with 2,135 (and a half) hours bid by the four companies.

Eight months on, we were all back in Hullabaloo last week for a celebration event to highlight what had achieved. The original tally of hours volunteered had been comfortably exceeded, with 3,400 hours devoted to sprucing up the parks. Capita took on Green Park, Cummins tackled Eastbourne Park, Darlington Building Society focused on North Lodge Park, and EE worked in The Denes.

Employees from those companies should be proud in the knowledge that they made a real difference to those parks. Weeding, digging, planting, pruning, shoveling – you name it, they did it.

But the benefits went far deeper than the obvious environmental improvements. The companies talked of the positive impact on the mental health of their employees, and how members of the community had been inspired to come into the parks to find out what was going on. Some of them ended up playing a part themselves and new friendships were forged in a display of community spirit. It also brought the generations together as college students joined in and engaged with elderly folk from local care homes.

It was meant to be a competition to see which company made the biggest impact but it came as no surprise when all four were declared as joint winners.

Credit where it's due. The parks were not only aesthetically enhanced, they were brought back to life by a simple yet brilliant idea by the aptly-named Darlington Cares organisation and supported by the borough council.

And the even better news is that all four companies remain committed to carrying on their good work in 2019. Indeed, the hope is that other companies will join in under what is known in business circles as corporate hospitality.

It strikes me as the start of something big that could become a model for the country. The seeds have been sown – let it grow, let it grow.

ON the subject of mental health, I wrote a piece for The Northern Echo recently about a company called The Hand Dyed Shoe Company, founded by young entrepreneur, Simon Bourne.

The business recently moved into the new business hub at Ushaw, on the outskirts of Durham, and Simon spoke bravely about how he’d fought back from a mental breakdown. His aim now is to grow the business and employ staff with a history of mental health issues.

It inspired the following message on Twitter from Lyndsey Young: “Thank you for this. It brought a tear to my eye. I am currently suffering with some mental health problems and reading this story was the nudge I needed for a Monday morning. Well done for turning things around Simon.”

One if four people will suffer from some form of mental illness. Talking openly about mental health, sharing experiences, and lifting the taboo, is essential if we are to help those who are suffering.

TOMORROW morning, one of the region's most enduring charity initiatives comes to an end when the organisers of the Durham Shopping Extravaganza hand over their final cheque at Ramside Hall Hotel, near Durham.

Since 1989, the charity – run by a dedicated band of women – has donated £458,875 to 99 local charities. Wouldn't it be amazing if the half a million pound barrier is broken in the 30th and final year? Fingers firmly crossed.

AND so to the vexed question of Santa’s sexuality.

Great Aycliffe Town Council has found itself in the headlines after ruling that Santa has to be a man and rejecting the services of a female volunteer who’d offered to be Santa during this year’s Town Tour.

The Northern Echo’s stance is that allowing a woman to be Santa isn’t political correctness but a sign of progress. At the risk of being cold-shouldered, and banished to the icy wastes of the North Pole, I disagree. The bottom line is that Father Christmas is a fella.

What next? A bloke playing Mary Poppins?