Volunteering is a practice that centres on giving to others, a selfless gesture I’m sure we can all agree.
Sometimes though, in a happy twist of faith, volunteering gives back in spades also.
Two such recipients of the “gift of giving” are Jill and Ronan Callanan.
Both from just outside Kilkenny city, Jill and Ronan went to school together. Ronan was a few years older than Jill, so she “knew of him, but didn’t know him”. When Ronan was in college studying veterinary and Jill was studying nursing, their paths crossed again.
“It was one of those things where we met and it didn’t kind of work out,” Jill recalls. “Later on, again we met and it [still] didn’t kind of work out.”
The pair went on to lead different lives. Jill completed another degree – this time in theology – and then moved to America for a time. Ronan was unfortunately diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 11 years ago and suffered a stroke while undergoing treatment. He underwent many procedures, including a bone marrow transplant.
Ronan has right-side weakness due to the stroke and hasn’t been able to work in a veterinary capacity since. Recently, however, Ronan got back into the animal health side of things, setting up his own business, Telenostics. It will provide on-farm testing for parasitic infections through dung.
But, while recovering in Kilkenny in 2013, Ronan was looking for things to get involved in that would aid his recovery and improve his coordination again.
“His mum was quite involved in the Shoebox Appeal,” Jill explains. “She said, ‘Working as a volunteer in one of the warehouses during the Christmas period will be great for the dexterity of his hands.’
“Lo and behold, he was in there and he got chatting to another girl. Ronan is really chatty, similar to myself. They both realised they knew me. Ronan said, ‘Sure she’s living in America and she’s married now.’ My friend Heather was like, ‘No, she’s living with her parents and nursing in Kilkenny.’
“I got a text later that week. Let’s just say from that point, which was November, the following September we were actually married. I always say it took a near-death experience and him probably realising, ‘Goodness, wouldn’t a nurse be a great one to marry,’” Jill jokes. “So it all happened quite quickly.”
That was eight years ago. Now Jill and Ronan have two little boys, Ethan and Hugh. They live on Jill’s family farm. Jill’s father was in sucklers growing up and the farm is now leased as a dairy farm.
With November and December being traditionally quiet months for many farmers, Jill says from her experience farmers are great to help out with the appeal. It hasn’t been unheard of over the years for local farmers to make their sheds available to hold shoeboxes when space in the warehouse gets tight.
As Jill and Ronan can attest, giving a shoebox (as well as it being a Christmas gift to a child who really needs it!) can also bring people together.
When Jill was working in a nursing home she used to link in with the activities co-ordinator, bringing in shoeboxes and wrapping paper so the residents could get involved. Also, in the local Methodist Church she attends, they often held a shoebox morning. They would come together, filling and wrapping shoeboxes before the service.
Of course, Jill and Ronan are very grateful to the Shoebox Appeal for reuniting them. They have both volunteered every year since. Although Jill took two sabbaticals the years she was pregnant, as her mother-in-law, who was one of the main co-ordinators in Kilkenny until she retired this year, “banned her” due to there being too much standing involved.
“I think because of everything that happened, we just have the fondest memories of the Shoebox Appeal,” Jill says. “We love the idea of it, of giving a personalised box to someone.
“For us then there is this connection, because it was due to the volunteers being in there and chatting while they were sorting out the shoeboxes that we overlapped again. So for us it has this really special place in our hearts. We liked it before, but now it just has so much more meaning.”
Eight years on from reconnecting, Jill and Ronan are now filling shoeboxes with their two sons. A family Christmas tradition, supporting the cause that brought them back together in the first place.
The Team Hope Christmas Shoebox Appeal is an annual appeal that encourages friends, families, schools and businesses to send gift-filled shoeboxes to children affected by poverty in eastern Europe and Africa for Christmas.
Each shoebox should contain a mixture of the four Ws – something to wash with, something to write with, something to wear and something to wow the child with.
Last year the Shoebox Appeal took place solely online. People were asked to donate €20 and a shoebox was made up for them. This year filling your own shoebox is back, but the €20 donation option is also still available.
For more information see www.teamhope.ie