A day for frolicking in rain and rescuing a rottweiler

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The Independent Online
Cavorting across a rainy hillside with the homeless, serving scores of elderly people with festive lunches and feeding an angry abandoned rottweiler are all part of a charity worker's Christmas Day.

This can be one of the busiest times of year for staff and volunteers and yesterday people helped out at a wide range of projects. More than half of the UK's adults volunteer at least once a year, most of them women, according to the latest national survey published by the Volunteer Centre UK.

The proportion of the population involved in some voluntary activity over a 12-month period rose from 44 per cent in 1981 to 51 per cent in 1991.

Workers at the Manchester branch of Crisis, the charity for the homeless, spent yesterday lashing together makeshift rafts on the shores of Lake Windermere in the Lake District and tramping across fells at the start of a week of outdoor activities.

Notorious for its persistent downpours and lingering mists, Cumbria might not be everybody's ideal Christmas destination, but for 60 homeless youngsters from Manchester it was a chance to escape city hostels. For some it was their first holiday.

Drying off after a hard morning's raft-building, Terri Farrow, co-ordinator of the project which is now in its second year, said it was proving to be a success. "We were a bit worried about the weather but the kids don't give a damn about the rain.

"Just about everybody fell in the lake this morning. I got pretty wet but I managed to avoid falling in by standing on the shore taking photos.

"And on Christmas Eve we took three mini-buses through the fog to Midnight Mass and saw a deer on the way there. Most of these kids, not only have they never been on holiday before but they've never even left Manchester, so their reactions to the deer were amazing. They went quiet. Didn't quite know what to say."

The rest of the week promises more walking jaunts interspersed with canoeing, rock climbing and a session on the "death slide," an aerial rope apparatus.

Ms Farrow's colleagues at the Crisis shelter near the Old Kent Road, south London, reported a hectic period with more than 300 homeless people looking for beds on Christmas Eve. The charity director, Mark Scothern, said yesterday it was the busiest Christmas he had known since he began working for the charity four years ago.

"We're expecting even more in tonight," he said. "It's noticeably busier than in the past but despite that there's still a very festive atmosphere in the shelter - lots of tinsel, lots of games, lots of noise."

"We've also got a fleet of drivers taxi-ing Christmas puddings to St Thomas's Hospital where they're cooking them for us and then ferrying them back to the shelter," he said.

Those driving the Crisis mobile lorry, which tours the capital at this time of year delivering provisions to those on the streets, were finding up to 50 people at each stopping point.

By the day's end, the charity had housed more than 500 people, making this festive period its busiest for 15 years.

In Truro, Susan Pickford, a volunteer helper with Age Concern Cornwall, slumped into her chair after a frantic lunchtime session serving meals to 60 elderly people. "It's been very busy at the Day Centre but everybody's got into the spirit of things - inmore ways than one since we opened the wine.

"I'm driving so I'm staying sober, but I can hear people getting pretty happy around me. We've just cleared away the last course and we are about to serve the Christmas pudding. It's all about sharing and it's great fun - that's why I do it every year. There's still lots of wine and sherry flowing about and no doubt we'll have a bit of carol singing later too."

Possibly the most dangerous Christmas was had by Jon Storey, an RSPCA inspector called to a garden in north-east London inhabited by a rottweiler angry at being left alone. "It wasn't the friendliest of rottweilers and I wasn't going in. I lobbed meat over the fence instead. It's certainly a different way to spend Christmas Day."

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