If you come from Sheffield you might know Gloria Stewart as Mrs Christmas
And now you can read her extraordinary story in her new book – A Friend For Christmas. (Main image with thanks to Sheffield Star)
Never one to turn away a stray dog or indeed a person who she worried might be feeling lonely, Gloria’s home was always open to everyone.
Growing up in post war Sheffield, her family struggled but her mum Lil always managed to rustle up Christmas decorations made of paper and a tasty dinner.
Despite a tough childhood, Gloria, 69, inherited her mum’s kindness and refused to see any person or animal suffer and her book is filled with heartwarming tales of her helping those in need.
And that was in spite of her battling cancer three times and having her own huge family to deal with.
In 2007, she started her ‘Home Alone At Christmas’ lunches for elderly people in Sheffield because she worried about them spending Christmas on their own.
Since then she’s made Christmas magical for thousands of people who – without her kindness – would have been alone.
Her story is so inspiring – a real tear jerker – and as a true animal lover I’m really honoured to have Gloria talking to me today.
What inspired you to write the book?
I’d done lots of interviews with a freelance journalist called Michelle Rawlins from Yorkshire and she had followed my story from when I first started Home Alone at Christmas 12 years ago.
We became friends so she learned more about me and vice versa, then I had a granddaughter born who only weighed 1lb 6oz.
It was around the time Michelle had her baby so we bonded over that too.
One day she said to me, ‘I think you should write book Gloria.’ I never thought anyone would be interested in me, but she saw something.
It was her encouragement and I realised it would help the Home Alone charity and be a legacy to my grandchildren.
That’s really lovely and so true. You definitely do have a story to tell! Can you share how the first Mrs Christmas party came about?
Yes I went along with my husband’s cousin to her hospital appointment.
Her husband wasn’t well, he had Dementia, and she needed to have some tests herself so I said I’d go as she was nervous.
When she went in I started talking to a woman in the waiting room. I said, ‘Are you all ready for Christmas?’
She told me she’d lost her husband and that she had two daughters but they didn’t bother with her.
She said: “When I was with my husband we loved Christmas together, but now as soon as the decorations go up, I shut the curtains and lock myself away.
“On Christmas Day I go to bed with a flask of coffee and a pack of biscuits.”
It absolutely broke my heart. I spoke to a few other folk who were on their own and they said the same, that no-one wanted them around.
I went home and it preyed on my mind. So I started making plans. I rallied people to donate food and gifts found a venue. That year there was 87 smiles on 87 faces at the lunch.
People have been really lovely. I didn’t think my life was that interesting! I’ve not read it all yet and it was hard at times going through everything with Michelle.
But I hope people enjoy it and that it makes people think about doing things for others. That’s what it’s about – being kind.
You’ve received a lot of recognition for your work over the last few years. How does that make you feel?
It’s been lovely as it has been hard. It’s like planning a wedding! But people have been wonderful and so kind.
One of the ladies, Patsy Douglas, sang for me at the first Home Alone and became a friend. She came with me visiting people in hospital and did so much.
So in 2013, I arranged for her to go on Surprise Surprise and when I told the researchers her story they were fascinated by us both – so we went on.
When we were on stage, as well as making a fuss over Patsy, Holly Willoughby said: “It’s not just about Patsy, it’s about you Gloria. You’ve helped a lot of lonely people.”
Then they had a video of the lunches and people who attended them talking about what it meant to them. They’d arranged for us to meet Olly Murs.
Finally they gave us both a stocking and with mine was a card. In it was a £4000 Sainsbury’s voucher to cover lunch for 400 people. I was lost for words.
It was lovely to have the recognition. You feel a real sense of achievement. Helping people gives me a sense of satisfaction, it worries me when I can’t do things for people.
I’ve met with Dame Esther Rantzen who campaigns against loneliness and David Blunkett and his dog Sadie came along to the lunch when he was MP for Sheffield.
Your book is about your family but also the many animals you shared your life with too.
Yes, I’ve always loved dogs and we’ve had so many in our lives from little waifs and strays I used to get my mum and dad to take in to my old German Shepherd NAME who we lost recently.
It breaks your heart when you lose them. They’re like family members. They bring you so many happy memories that I would never be without.
You had a challenging childhood growing up, how did having your pets help you cope?
They always give you affection and no matter what, they never judge you and sometimes people do. They give you unconditional love and are always there for a cuddle.
You can talk to them and whether they understand you or not, when you’re going through a difficult time them just being there can help ease your sadness.
You’ve always had dogs as part of your family as an adult too?
Yes, I was always bringing stray dogs home and if I heard a story about a dog that was being given up, I’d be round there to offer them a new home!
If I was struggling, I would take my dog Max and all my dogs for a walk at night and I felt so safe with them.
It was my time to gather my thoughts and being with them always made me feel calm and content, no matter what was going on.
My son, he’s the same, he has a rescued Rottweiler. We’re all animal lovers. You get so attached to them don’t you?
Absolutely! What would you say they best thing about having a dog is?
They say a dog is a friend for life and I believe in that. They’re not judgemental, and they will always look after you.
I found I could talk to my animals no matter what I was going through and it would help with the pain I was having.
You think they’ll be there forever, that’s the hard part, and just like with a human you feel for them so if they get ill or hurt, your heart aches.
And you have your annual Home Alone At Christmas Lunch for people who are alone in the festive period – do you think you’d ever extend the invite to their dogs too?
Well that would be so lovely – imagine a room full of dogs and people! We’ve had David Blunkett’s dog so maybe that counts?
If anyone ever said that they could come but they needed to bring their dog, well, we’d do all we could to make that happen!
And all the meat that’s left from the Christmas lunch, that goes to an animal sanctuary, I couldn’t have it go to waste, so the dogs get their Christmas Dinner too.
Thanks so much for talking to us Gloria, what can people do if they’d like to find out more about your work?
I have a Facebook page for Home Alone At Christmas where people can get updates about the event and my book, A Friend For Christmas, is in bookstores and on Amazon for £5 at www.amazon.co.uk/Friend-Christmas-Gloria-Stewart