HAVING donated 80,000 Christmas gifts since 2012, Courtney Hughes is now
ready to launch the ninth year of her Secret Santa Appeal.

Each September, Miss Hughes, of Didcot, starts to fill her Santa sack with donated gifts ready to deliver thousands of presents to vulnerable people over the Christmas period.

Her team of volunteers and family members assist her to sort the presents from a range of drop-off donation points and help to deliver them to local charities, hospitals, care homes, foodbanks, and homeless outreach projects.

This year, she has also been busy providing community support around Didcot during the coronavirus pandemic.

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She was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last year, in recognition of her work for older and vulnerable people.

Explaining the 2012 origins of the Secret Santa Appeal, Miss Hughes, a senior nursing assistant at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, said: “I used to look after my great-grandmother and she was in hospital one Christmas and she was a Christmassy person.

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“Because she was active, I hated the fact she was in hospital and couldn’t be at home. 

"There were many people in similar situations, so I took some presents to some of the people on the ward, to make them feel a bit better.”

Her great-grandmother died in March 2013. Miss Hughes recalled: “[Secret Santa] all came from there, in memory of my great-grandmother. 

"She taught me how to look at life.”

The festive appeal will be going ahead this year, but with some Covid-19 precautions in place. 
This year’s activities will have a focus on families affected by coronavirus, many of whom are still coping with the effects of the long lockdown.

Miss Hughes said: “We are still going to go to some of the hospital wards to give out gifts.

“We are really going to focus on people who have been affected by coronavirus and the people who have been furloughed from work or have lost their jobs and are struggling for money.

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“We also want to focus on children who have been really poorly during this time.

"There are lots of people struggling, so we are going to support them this year. For anyone who needs help, we will do as much as we can because it has been a really tough time.”

Miss Hughes is seeking donations of presents and the help of volunteers to assist in distributing Secret Santa gifts.

The festive appeal is taking donations of new toys, books, toiletries, vouchers, food, DVDs, games, craft sets, activities and other suitable gift items.

It also needs baby essentials, including nappies and wipes, for handing out to homeless families around the area.

Donation points will be appearing across Oxfordshire over the next few weeks.

Reflecting on the growth and success of the annual appeal, Miss Hughes said: “I never really thought it would get like this. 

"It was always something my family just did, but it has become a big part of the year.
“It started off with only 250 presents, but has got so big now.”

She added: “I’ve met some lovely people along the way.”