Spreading the Christmas spirit for 60 years

The Christmas Fair Fund was started in Stanger by a group of young farmers’ wives 60 years ago – and the organisation has brought hope and upliftment to the region ever since. Robyn Joubert visited them.

Spreading the Christmas spirit for 60 years
Held a month before Christmas, stall holders are handpicked to ensure visitors can enjoy a quality Christmas shopping experience.
Photo: Robyn Joubert
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In 1952, a group of concerned young farmers’ wives from the Stanger district set about raising funds to buy a car for the nurse at a clinic in Groutville, who needed transport to service the community in outlying rural areas.

Their first fundraising event was a Country Christmas Fair, where they sold their delicious baked, fresh farm produce and beautiful hand-sewn items in the Stanger Town Hall. They needed to raise £50 to buy the car – but they raked in a staggering £500.

The car was promptly purchased and the balance of the funds was used to attend to other needs of the community in the lower Tugela area, where schools and clinics were badly equipped, and poorer children needed bursaries for higher education. Out of that, the Stanger and District Christmas Fair Fund was born, a non-profit welfare organisation that has come to be known as the Christmas Fair Fund.

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Members of the local farming community still have a strong presence in the fund: Back, from left: Doornkop sugar cane farmer John Osborn, Gill Campbell, Gaby Lyle, vice-chairperson of the Christmas Faid Fund Michelle Blake, Ray Thompson, Fran Jex and Sue Rowland. Seated, from left: Monica Mansfield, Liz Osborn, current chairperson June Garner, Debbie Finch and Di Stewart.

In its 60th year, the organisation is showing no signs of slowing down. Instead, it is growing stronger. The annual Christmas fair continues to be the fund’s major fund-raising event. For the past nine years it has been held at Collisheen Estate, a few kilometers inland of Ballito. A sugar cane estate originally founded by Douglas Liege and Zillah Hulett, Collisheen is currently owned by Neil and Morag Hulett who kindly put their property at the fund’s disposal.

Set among magnificent old trees, the two-day fair is held a month before Christmas and stall holders are handpicked to ensure visitors can enjoy a quality Christmas shopping experience. Members do as much as their time allows, inviting stall holders, setting up the venue, baking goods for teas, manning stalls and selling tickets to visitors.

In addition to the Christmas fair, members organise three other annual fund-raising events: a golf day, a bridge day, and an evening event, such as a fashion show or gala dinner, with past guest speakers including agricultural economist Clem Sunter and environmentalist Lawrence Anthony. “Part of the Christmas Fair Fund is people coming together to enjoy the camaraderie which has existed since the first days.

Ron Parks infuses some musical cheer into the Collisheen Christmas Fair.

All the members work on a purely voluntary basis so a lot of goodwill exists among them. That spills out to the people who attend our events,” says chairperson June Garner. The fund has raised about R1,4 million since 2002 with annual takings becoming progressively more, leaping from R54 000 in 2002, to R105 000 in 2005 and R141 000 in 2007. “Last year we raised R240 000, of which R134 300 was raised at the fair alone. This year, we raised R133 700 at the fair even though terrible weather dampened the number of visitors.”

As the funds have swelled, so has the list of organisations seeking assistance. The fund’s recipient list has grown to include 19 organisations, from orphanages, libraries for the disabled, to church projects, a retirement village, schools, crèches and feeding schemes. “The focus for assistance was, and still is, on causes prepared to uplift themselves, but who are in need of assistance to do so.’’

They have assisted Sister Mquebu, a wonderful woman who motivated the building of the Groutville Clinic in 1952. the church was funded by a local farmer and supported by the Christmas Fair Fund. ‘‘In 1984, we built two roadside market stalls where self-help projects sell their vegetables and handiwork. We have renovated several local schools and built the Mbekamuzi Higher Primary School as well as two small pre-primary schools in the area. Library facilities, a science room and teaching aids were also provided to local schools,” June recounts.

A group of Cape Minstrels was just the thing to get the party started at the Shine Women’s Day 2012.

The fund’s contributions to the Lower Tugela Bursary Fund have helped about 120 local children attend university or technikon. “Last year, the fund also facilitated the building of two new ablution blocks at Thembeni Junior Primary School to replace the ageing pit toilets. The project cost about R400 000 and was made possible with the support of members of the building industry. We have identified the need to link-in with businesses for those sort of projects,” June says.

With no administrative costs, 100% of funds raised are channeled directly to the projects they support. “Donors can channel their gifts through the fund, confident in the knowledge that all recipients are carefully vetted and monitored. We are custodians of the generosity of individuals and organisations and we have a responsibility to ensure their funds are used appropriately,” June says.

The fund maintains a strong link to the farming community, with founder Shirley Jex’s daughter, Debbie Finch serving as vice-chairperson until 2011. And a number of farmers and their wives, like Debbie who is a flower farmer, and tomato and cucumber farmer Nicky Baird, counted among their members. However, the townie 40-somethings are also getting involved.

“We have recruited a few new young members and our vice-chairperson, Michelle Blake, a local businesswoman, will probably take over the reigns at the end of 2013,’’ says June. ‘‘It is exciting to get newer members, because we see the fair continuing into the future and growing even stronger. It is a privilege to give back to the community and to share the blessings that each of us have received in life.’’

Email June Garner [email protected]