Each December for the past 44 years, greeting Black Santa on the steps of St Anne’s Cathedral has become a tradition for people visiting Belfast city centre, who stop by to donate money to hundreds of charities across Northern Ireland.
However this year will be different, with many people staying at home because of the Covid-19 restrictions. Instead of relying on visitors to the Cathedral, the Black Santa team is now hoping to encourage people to visit a brand new website where they can safely donate online.
The iconic vigil of the Black Santa on the steps will still go ahead, and Dean Stephen Forde says it is his favourite time of the year.
“The positive theme of this year has been the way we’ve come together as a community: we’ve seen it in our neighbourhoods with people helping those who are isolating, with the clap for heroes in the spring and I am certain that people will rally to support others by donating to the Black Santa Sit-out,” Dean Forde said.
“If people are in town, we will be holding our sit-out, but if they prefer to stay home, they can still get involved by visiting our new website.
“After everything we’ve been through, we’re all feeling the need to come together in whatever way we can.
“The sit-out has always been a wonderful way of doing this, and I’m delighted that this year we’re modernising it so that not only can we still be part of this together, but we can also ensure that those who depend on the donations from the fund will still be able to make a difference in the lives of so many others.”
The digital campaign has been developed by PwC NI as part of its work in the community. A team of 40 volunteers built the website and supported the development of the communications and merchandise.
PwC brought in award-winning Belfast artist James Ashe and social enterprise charity the Orchardville Society to create limited edition merchandise. Woollen beanie hats can be ordered on the website, and there’ll also be giveaway competitions on the Cathedral’s social media platforms during December. All profits from the sales go to the sit-out fund.
Almost 200 charities across Northern Ireland receive money from the fund, including Assistance Dogs NI. This charity has trained the first courtroom assistance dog in Europe, called Connie, and she’s used by the NSPCC to help children attending court hearings. Each dog costs £5,000 to be fully trained.
Geraldine McGaughey, who established the charity in 2010, said: “These trials can be really unsettling for young people as well as being quite an intimidating process. Connie helps the young people, building their confidence through playing games and calling her name – the children learn how to project their voices so they can be more easily heard in a courtroom. Connie has been vital in supporting children through very difficult times, providing comfort and reassurance.”
Some of the charities which receive funding are listed on the website, along with information about ways they have benefited from the Black Santa Sit-Out. If you would like to be part of this year’s event, buy a limited edition beanie or donate securely online please visit belfastblacksanta.org.