The Jewish Chronicle
‘I’m honouring my brother by helping families in need’
For many parents, it’s a familiar situation. What to do with all the clothes, toys and games after your children have outgrown them? At the start of the year, Bianca Sakol was faced with a mounting pile of things no longer needed by her children. With charity shops closed, she couldn’t find anywhere to offload them, so she contacted her local foodbank.
The foodbank, Gratitude in Borehamwood, only gave away food, but offered her a spot at their Sunday session. Sakol took them up on it, and quickly realised the scale of need was greater than she had imagined. From that seed came Sebby’s Corner, an initiative to collect and donate clothes, toys and more to vulnerable families. She chose the name in honour of her brother, who died when he was five and she was two, of an extremely rare form of cancer.
In hindsight, a “children’s essentials bank” is an obvious concept; with foodbank usage up 74% in five years according to the Trussell Trust, it stands to reason families also need wider support. “I thought, how can this not already be a thing,” says Sakol, 33 and from Bushey. “If you can’t afford to put food on the table, presumably you can’t afford clothes or toys either.”
She had plenty going spare, and knew friends would too, so spread the word on Facebook and Instagram that she was collecting. Three months later, it’s become a sizeable operation set up to help 200 families a month — and interest is growing. Sakol is taking clothes up to age 13, and fundraising to buy things like underwear. A GoFundMe, set up in February, is at more than £18,000 and climbing.
Helped by volunteers, Sebby’s Corner is now running a weekly giveaway at Gratitude and distributing essentials via other organisations elsewhere in North London, including schools and foodbanks. She’s aiming for this to be a monthly service, with parcels given to those who know where need in their community lies.
As a mother, Sakol knows parenting can be tough enough without worrying about where money to buy nappies is coming from. “It’s even things like if your child is unwell then you go and get Calpol. A box of Calpol is like £4 and that’s not insignificant to someone living off universal credit or unemployed,” she says. A child going up a size might be a nuisance for some; for others, it can mean a choice between food or clothes.
Charity shops will eventually reopen, of course, but they meet a different need, albeit that they clearly value donations. “You wouldn’t necessarily find all the things you need, and also £3 on a kids’ coat that would have cost £20 at Next is great, but when you’re counting every penny even going to a charity shop is sometimes not feasible,” Sakol points out.
In Borehamwood alone, there are three foodbanks; across the UK figures suggest an 110 percent increase in demand during the pandemic. Numbers visiting the “corner” have been rising week by week. “It’s people who don’t have any alternative,” she says, noting that while there are support systems out there, many struggle to navigate the paperwork to access them.
The recipients have, unsurprisingly, been enormously grateful to receive baby baths, Moses baskets and other essentials. “For people who don’t have anything, it’s lifechanging. Having a family is so expensive. Whatever we can do is appreciated.”
One family she is helping has recently become homeless; the husband works but they are stuck in one room in a Travelodge with two children and another on the way any day. Sakol put the word out and was inundated with offers. “It’s incredible,” she says. “We have got her everything she needs. I’m going tonight to drop it and I can’t wait to see her face.”
On top of nappies, clothes and fresh underwear, Sakol is providing baby formula. This is a thorny issue, as not all foodbanks will give this out. Unicef advice states that “food banks should ensure that donors know that infant formula donations are not advised,” and many if not all adhere to that.
“They want to encourage breast-feeding, because then they can be sure that there is supply,” she explains. “Their argument is you can’t guarantee supply [of formula] when you are getting it from a foodbank. That’s well and good if you’ve got a newborn and you’re trying to encourage the mother to breastfeed, but if you’ve got a four-month-old that baby is not going back to being breastfed, so why should we not support that mum?”
She highlights stories of mums watering down formula to stretch it. “That’s just not OK.”
She’d like to do more to highlight that, when she has time, but that’s in short supply. Sakol is doing this on top of the day job (she works for RSY coordinating summer programmes) and parenting her son and daughter, four and 18 months. “It is starting to take over my life,” she admits.
The long-term goal is to establish Sebby’s Corner as a charity, and Sakol has visions of this — or a version —operating in communities across the country. While there are organisations in this space, as she understands it, “there’s not the equivalent of foodbanks, a network of places where people can get this stuff.”
For now, it’s about solving challenges around storage and how to get supplies to those in need. At present, they are closed to new donations for lack of anywhere to put them, and Sakol is directing supporters to give money instead until this is sorted.
There’s plenty to do for an organisation set up with little game plan. But given how it has taken off, it’s clear this has tapped into something.
For Sakol, it is wonderful to honour her brother’s memory this way. She has been hugely touched by people’s generosity. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” she says. “People really want to help and we’re giving them a chance to do that.”