For those with no loved ones, it’s an isolating time. That’s why TCD is stepping in…

Christmas is a funny old time of year. For some it’s a chance to catch up with every acquaintance under the sun, get a bit too merry with a manager and gorge until resembling a Santa piñata. For others, the emphasis on family, friendship and festivity is a painful reminder of less comfortable circumstances. And, for every single one of us who’s throwing sprouts at siblings and arguing over the Radio Times, there are thousands spending the 25th hungry and alone.

They are alone on the one day of the year that the world assumes that we’re together

This is the reality facing young people fresh out of the care system; not only do many have no roots, even finding a bed for the night can be a struggle. That’s why, in 2013, award-winning poet Lemn Sissay set up The Christmas Dinner (TCD) project in response to his own childhood in care. These dinners now provide care leavers across Manchester, Leeds, Barnsley, Stockport, Sheffield and beyond with a special day - no matter what their background. 

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TCD founder Lemn Sissay spent much of his own childhood in care

Like many community projects, it begins with volunteers and the generosity of the general public. Leeds’ branch held a star-studded ‘Dinner for The Dinner’ at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in September, complete with raffle and auction to raise funds for the big 2019 meal. An Amazon wish list saw the city buying gifts for strangers, which were then wrapped by a team armed with paper, scissors and reels of sellotape to the tune of holiday hits at a donated office space in Holbeck. Even Leeds City Council’s Head of Children’s Services Steve Walker took on three death-defying challenges to support the cause; abseiling down Leeds Beckett University, scaling Yorkshire’s iconic Three Peaks and skydiving 10,000 feet from a tiny aircraft.

To add to the experience, the day itself is hosted at a mystery location: care leavers are picked up in taxis and greeted by volunteers who have been busy tidying, decorating, and laying tables for hours. With a huge shopping list sourced from local food banks, shops and supermarkets, ITV’s Food Glorious Food competition winner Rahila Hussain heads up the Leeds kitchen, prepping a mouthwatering menu for the young guests. There are mince pies and nibbles to fuel the entertainment - which last year involved rounds of pool, nail art, tree decorating, PlayStation, board games and group activities - before a huge lunch of turkey with all the trimmings. There are even enough leftovers for everyone to depart with a goodie bag for tomorrow’s dinner, along with armfuls of presents and hopefully the memory that this Christmas was a joyful one. 

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Food Glorious Food winner Rahila Hussain (left) heads up the kitchen

I found each of the care leavers to have a compelling story of transience and heartache. All are referred to the scheme by social workers who value the project’s lasting impact and it’s undeniably rewarding for volunteers like me too.

The Leeds Christmas Dinner are always looking for more hands to help. If you can join next year’s wrapathon, donate a gift or get involved on the 24th, 25th or 26th, email