Mrs Christmas Dee Drake and her team spread the love to 12,000 children

They call her Mrs Christmas and for a good reason. For the past decade, Dee Drake has been making sure underprivileged children across the North West wake up on Christmas morning with a giant sack of presents from Santa.

Dee and her husband Chris, who live near Holmes Chapel, are the force behind the regional charity The Toy Appeal (Give a Child a Christmas), which guarantees each year a distinctive red Santa's sack to thousands of young people from babies up to the age of 17 in our community.

Great British Life: Some of the volunteers for the toy appeal PHOTO: Kirsty ThompsonSome of the volunteers for the toy appeal PHOTO: Kirsty Thompson

Given the cost of living crisis, demand has increased by 20 per cent and this year they will deliver their trademark red sacks, each filled with eight age-appropriate gifts, to at least 12,000 children in time for Christmas Day. To date they have provided their Christmas sacks to more than 55,000 children across the North West.

It takes a military operation to deliver this incredible service and the Drakes are supported by a team of 500 volunteers of all ages. They rely on the generosity of fundraisers too. This year, they raised a whopping £300,000 to make sure Christmas comes to some of the most vulnerable children in our community.

So how do they do it? Our picture diary looks back at a year in the life of The Toy Appeal...

Great British Life: January. The Toy AppealJanuary. The Toy Appeal


Teenagers from the Duke of Edinburgh scheme volunteer to fold 600 giant builders sacks used to store the red Santa sacks. 'They love getting involved,' says Dee. 'There is something so special about having children supporting other children.' Each red Santa sack has eight gifts, including new toys and games which the charity buys. And each child also receives books – these are pre-loved, but have to be in excellent condition. Some 20,000 books are donated each year and in January the massive task of cleaning, checking, and arranging by age order begins.

Great British Life: February. The Toy AppealFebruary. The Toy Appeal


Many sacks also contain a soft toy and like the books, most of the teddies are donated. 'We need 5,000 each year,' says Dee. 'They all have to be washed by me our teddy lady, Helen Neale, and we have the support of the WI who repair any that need repairing. My dining room is filled with teddies. I hang them on my washing line or put them in front of the log burner to dry.' Some oversized teddies are reserved for 'special requests' and given to children who are particularly struggling or facing extra hardships.

Great British Life: March .The Toy AppealMarch .The Toy Appeal


Boxes of toys and gifts Dee orders from the toy wholesalers in January start to arrive and volunteers turn up at their warehouse to help arrange them by age order. 'All children get a main present – something big from Santa, which could be a doll, a make-up set or a remote control car, as well as a stocking filler, a craft item, a board game and a sports item. That is five gifts per child, plus two books and a teddy. We spend £25 per child, but this is getting more challenging as the price of toys increase like everything else. We have the best volunteers who give up so much of their time to support us; we couldn’t do it without them.'

Great British Life: April: The Toy AppealApril: The Toy Appeal


Toy deliveries keep arriving and volunteers are kept busy unloading lorries and stacking giant cardboard boxes in the warehouse. Toys are arranged according to age and gender – all signposted under under wooden sign holders that were handmade by Dee's father, Padraig Burke, who died in July, and was a dedicated volunteer too. 'He would help us with smaller last-minute deliveries and he loved it,' says Dee. It is quite a military operation.

Great British Life: May .The Toy AppealMay .The Toy Appeal


Fundraising is everything to the charity and this year's target is £300,000. That got a fantastic boost when volunteer stalwart Guy Wolstencroft led a team of 20 cyclists on the gruelling Giro d'Italia route, two days before the professionals faced the challenge. Dee says: 'It was brutal. They were away from home for nearly a month, giving up their home life and careers, as well as the months of training before the event. They were amazing, they had all weathers, even snow, and raised £55,000 for us. That is enough money to pay for presents for all our five, six and seven year olds.'

Great British Life: June. The Toy AppealJune. The Toy Appeal


And the cash keeps coming in. A charity football match raises a further £12,500 for the appeal. Two Toy Appeal volunteers, brothers Max and Sam Lilley, lead their teams in a face-off on the pitch of Macclesfield Town FC. The brothers are representing the Edwina Lilley Charitable Trust, set up in memory of their late mum, and dedicated to supporting children's charities. Dee says: 'It was amazing, they had set out to raise £2,500. That money will support the toys we need to buy for our 10-year-old boys across the North West, all 500 of them.'

Great British Life: July. The Toy AppealJuly. The Toy Appeal


Christmas may still be six months away, but work now begins on filling some of the red Santa sacks ahead of the big day. The warehouse is choc-a-bloc, with volunteers like Guy (fresh back and fully recovered from his massive Giro d'Italia adventure) helping Chris at the warehouse with some of the heavier lifting. By the end of this month, sacks for ages eight through to 12 will be made up. Dee says the charity demands long hours but there are no complaints. 'Everyone loves being involved and ensuring so many children get to receive presents on Christmas morning – it’s magical.’

Great British Life: August. The Toy AppealAugust. The Toy Appeal


Volunteers are busy preparing the cable ties for each of the 12,000 red Santa sacks. Each tie will have a tag noting gender and age, eg: 'Boy aged 10'. Dee says: 'All the sacks need a cable tie on them so when we deliver them to schools, social services, women's refuges and so on, they know what age it is appropriate for, and they don't have to open them'. At added expense, the charity uses red sacks. Dee explains: 'If parents can't or don't wrap the individual presents, then at least the red sack looks festive for the children.'

Great British Life: September. The Toy AppealSeptember. The Toy Appeal


This month is all about admin. In June, Dee contacts around 200 organisations the charity supports – from schools and food banks to refuges and social services – for their toy requests. 'This helps us put together a picture of all the children we need to support this year.' As long as the requests come in time, Dee delivers. 'We don't say no.' This year, requests are up by 20 per cent. Chris and Dee spend evenings over their dining table with the paperwork. 'We sit working out the logistics of deliveries. It's geeky, but I love it.'. Luckily, Dee and Chris, who work as IT consultants, have the perfect skills set.

Great British Life: October. The Toy AppealOctober. The Toy Appeal


Super volunteers Sarah Church and Liz Pickard look after all teenage toy requests.'They are our teenage team and they plan all year and ensure our teenagers receive amazing Christmas sacks,' says Dee. This year, they have to buy gifts for 2,200 teenagers. Presents can range from speakers to beanie hats, back packs, dart boards, weighted skipping ropes and smellies and beauty sets. Dee adds: 'I leave Liz and Sarah to just to get on with it and I know it’s in safe hands. We raise the money, tell them how many sacks we need for the teenagers and they do all the buying and packing, so that come December I don't have to worry about this age group.'

Great British Life: November. The Toy AppealNovember. The Toy Appeal


On top of the 12,000 Santa sacks, the charity also provides a large amount of one-off gifts for children. Dee explains: 'Some organisations ask for wrapped presents for a Christmas party. This year we have had 637 requests for all ages, right through to 17 year olds. The value is around £10 to £15 for each gift. These parties are important. Some of these children may not be having a Christmas – no Christmas dinner – so it is lovely for them to have a party in their community, and get a present, and something that is nice.'

Great British Life: December. The Toy AppealDecember. The Toy Appeal


'This is when it all comes together,' says Dee. Volunteers gather at a storage point for five or six days. 'We spend two days making up the remaining red toy sacks then three days distributing them across the North West,' she says. It's quite an operation, and visually, quite something: a sea of Christmas red. The atmosphere is great too: Christmas music is playing and the catering team keep everyone fed and watered. 'Everybody loves it,' says Dee. 'We have local schoolchildren come and sing to us. It is so special on Christmas Day, thinking of all those children opening their red Santa sacks.


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Great British Life: It's a wrap for another year. Dee and Chris Drake take a breather before starting all over again (c) The Toy AppealIt's a wrap for another year. Dee and Chris Drake take a breather before starting all over again (c) The Toy Appeal