Mention Courtney Hughes to a Didcot resident and they’ll probably tell you she’s the driving force behind local charity Secret Santa 365. Although only 21 years old Courtney is gearing up for her ninth year delivering Christmas presents to vulnerable people. I met Courtney to find out more about her and her life in Didcot.
Tell me about your early life
I was born in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and spent my school years at Stephen Freeman, Manor and Didcot Girls School.
I was a young carer from an early age, looking after my mum and nan. Nan was an adventurous and independent lady who loved Christmas. When she went into hospital over the festival period in 2012 we were all upset that she’d miss out on her favourite season. So we took presents and Christmas dinner to her. She loved it but whilst we were there we noticed other people sitting on their beds with no visitors. The staff were doing their best but I felt sorry for those without family or friends.
Nan passed away a few months later. To keep her memory alive I decided to go back to the hospital the following year and deliver Christmas to the patients. I used my pocket money, put an advert in the paper and got help from school friends to buy over 250 presents and decorations to take to the hospital. Secret Santa was born and has grown bigger every year.
What did you do after school?
After leaving Didcot Girls School I started a childcare course at Abingdon and Witney college. However a job came up at Sobell House so I thought I’d apply and see how I got on. Incredibly I got it and I spent two fantastic years working there. Working in palliative care is completely different from how you imagine it and I made so many friends.
That said, it was challenging to get there as I don’t drive. I relied on the bus to get back to Didcot which isn’t easy with shift work.
So now I’m a senior nursing assistant at the Women’s Centre at the John Radcliffe Hospital. I love working for the NHS as they’ve done so much for my family. Next year I plan to start my nursing studies which will take three years.
What has happened to Secret Santa since that first year?
Well, for a start, it has changed name to Secret Santa 365 as it has become a year round charity. It has grown massively since 2013, and we’ve handed out over 50,000 gifts since that first year. There are now around 20 year round volunteers, including my mum who helps with social media and my sister who loves doing presentations.
I’m very lucky that local shops and companies help out too. Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco have supported us from early on. Plus we get volunteers and funds raised by companies such as Tangoe and Element Six.
And we are expanding across the country! We now have bases in London and Manchester, although our main home will remain in Didcot. I was often asked by people living in other areas how they could help get involved. As it has predominately been a local charity it was tricky. However having these additional bases will allow other people to give back to their areas too.
Aside from Christmas collections what else are you involved in?
I’ve started Chat-T cafe at Cornerstone. This is a drop in cafe on Friday mornings for older people (60+) to come along, have a coffee and chat.
We offer a birthday bag project where vulnerable members of the public can be referred to us to have a bag of goodies made up on their birthdays. We have given out 5 this year so far.
I am also involved with the Oxford Homeless Pathways project in Oxford. This involves providing food, bedding and clothes to this in need. We offer homeless people the things they need but might not know how to access.
Do you have any free time and, if so, what do you do in it?
I don’t get much free time! From September to December all of my spare time is spent preparing for Christmas and Secret Santa.
However I do like to travel. Last year we had a holiday in Portugal, this year my partner Pedro and I went to Vietnam. Whilst there we visited a school to distribute stationery and teddy bears to pupils. It was an eventful journey getting there as a landslide had taken the road out. However the headteacher was very thankful and I’d like to do something similar again in the future.
How can we can contribute to this year’s Secret Santa?
We are once again collecting toiletries, new toys, gifts, baby items, vouchers and non-perishable foods. You can drop them off at local collection points, including Cornerstone, Marlborough Club, SOHA and Boundary Park. Full details are on the Secret Santa 365 website.
And now, a few questions about Didcot. What do you enjoy about living here?
My whole life is here. I’ve grown up amongst family and friends and don’t know anything different. It’s easy to commute from and there’s plenty to do now that the town has expanded. We are just buying a house locally; I have no plans to move away!
Can you recommend a place or business in Didcot?
Definitely Cornerstone. I spend a lot of time in here and it’s like a community in a building. They have been very supportive over the years and there’s so much on offer, from shows to book swaps to the cafe. It’s also a good place to warm up when the Street Fair is on.
What one thing would you change about Didcot?
The traffic. I rely on public transport and get stuck in traffic quite a lot. It has got worse with the town expansion but I’ve got more used to it now.
A final note…
Thank you Courtney, it was lovely to meet you. Courtney didn’t mention in our meeting that she has been nominated for, and won, many awards. Most recently she was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to older and vulnerable people in Oxfordshire. Congratulations Courtney!