It’s the most wonderful time of the year – when Francis House’s Festival of Trees arrives at The Lowry Outlet Mall, making everyone’s visit to the Quays a little bit brighter.
And it is all down to Mary and Alan Gillatt, who’ve been running the pop-up store every Christmas for 13 years to raise money for Francis House children’s hospice.
The couple’s involvement with the charity goes back 30 years – even before the hospice was built.
At that time, Mary was chair of the charities commission for McVities and was approached by the person who later became administrator for Francis House asking if, as the biggest employer in the area, McVities would help to fund-raise.
“I remember coming to the Town Hall to see the plans for the hospice,” says Mary, “and we initially raised £10,000 which we thought would furnish and decorate a bedroom.”
Once the hospice was up and running, Mary’s fundraising at McVities helped to buy the hospice its first minibus and together with her work colleagues she ran all kinds of events to help support the charity’s work.
Now retired, Mary and her husband, Alan, who used to run a charity shop for Francis House, are still heavily involved in the work of the hospice. And have raised more than £280,000 through their annual Festival of Trees.
“The idea initially came from David Woodrow, who was the fundraising office manager and had seen a similar scheme on a visit home to Zimbabwe,” Mary explains. “He’d seen decorated Christmas trees around a shopping mall and each was auctioned off for a different charity.
“We didn’t think we could put trees around a mall, but thought about the idea of a shop of trees. We approached the Lowry Outlet, which at that time was owned by Emmerson, and they very generously offered us a unit.”
Since then the Lowry Outlet has offered the charity a unit every year without charge, Mary and Alan run the shop as volunteers, open the same shopping hours as the other Outlet stores, with all funds going directly to Francis House.
“It’s long hours, hard work and we have a domestic now and again,” Mary laughs, “but we love it. We meet loads of lovely people. It’s a great way of putting something back, and I always say whenever you volunteer for anything you will get back far, far more than you ever put in”.
This year there are 52 decorated trees up for auction, all sponsored by different organisations. People place bids on the trees and the highest bidder on the closing date of 8 December gets to take home the fully decorated tree and presents to go under it. And there are some amazing and unusual gifts, including £500 of Selfridges, vouchers, a family holiday to Tunisia, hampers, hand-made decorations, and gifts from the casts of Coronation Street and Cold Feet, as well as sporting stars from Manchester City, Manchester United and Lancashire County Cricket Club.
Sometimes there are heart-felt stories behind the trees, such as when a family sponsored a tree to celebrate what would’ve been their son’s 18th birthday. “Their little boy died when he was two-and-a-half and when he was alive the family had been supported by Francis House,” says Mary. “They didn’t want their son’s 18th birthday to go without doing something special, and 16 years on from losing their son they fund-raised to decorate a tree for us out of the goodness of their hearts. It makes you feel very humble”.
In addition to the tree auction, the shop fund-raises by selling a small number of gifts, toys, crackers and Christmas cards, as well as running a raffle and a festive Wishing Well. There is also a memory tree, where people can write a memory of a loved one on tags provided in the shop and hang it on the tree. When the shop closes on 8 December the tags are transferred to a tree in Francis House which is illuminated for the whole of the festive season.
“The messages make you think. It’s very humbling,” says Mary. “We had a note from a child who wrote: ‘Grandad died at Christmas and if he thought we didn’t celebrate because of him he’d come back and haunt us’. I just think for a child to think like that is amazing.”
The Festival of Trees at The Lowry Outlet, Salford Quays closes on 8 December 2019.