Shirley Finnegan is surrounded by hampers. They're on her dining room table, sofas, shelves and no doubt under her bed. Each one is beautifully wrapped and ready to give away. Inside the hampers is a surprise. Instead of designer gifts or luxury food, there's a blanket, toiletries, sweets, drinks, sheets and a pillowcase, and Shirley, 48, can't wait to deliver them to the workers living in and around Dubai.
The British expat and her husband Keith give away around 100 care packs to workers during Ramadan, Christmas and whenever she can raise funds to make them.
"It didn't take much time to realise the isolated nature of workers' lives in the UAE," she says. Shirley started assembling hampers when she moved to Dubai in 2009 because she knew the workers had left their families back in their home countries.
"Their loneliness struck a chord. Every day, the need to reach out to them and do something that would bring a smile to their faces grew stronger."
"I didn't make any dramatic plans but started small,'' Shirley says. "I decided to put together hampers containing things they would need in their daily lives. As I don't have a driver's licence, I would wait for my husband to take me around during the weekends."
Once she realised the impact her gesture was having on the workers, she wanted to do more. "They were so happy to get the gift packs," she says. "Their smiles of joy were truly heartfelt. I wanted to give away as many packs as I could." But first she had to raise money in order to make the care packs on a larger scale.
"The cost to make a pack is around Dh60. So my first effort was to raise funds through selling used books. I spread the word among my friends and soon we had a network of people donating books." Luckily, plenty of Shirley's friends and neighbours went to her book sale and the idea went viral.
"People wanted to help, knowing their money would bring joy to someone," she says. It wasn't long before friends across the UAE were volunteering to host garage sales at their homes to raise more money for the cause. Shirley participated in two craft fairs at schools, and once again the effort paid off and she managed to raise close to Dh800.
"Usually, once I have enough money to make about ten packs, I go shopping for supplies in the sales, looking for the best offers and discounts." In her first Christmas, Shirley gave away 69 packs but since then, she has always been pushing to deliver more.
"Last year, during Ramadan, I put together 125 packages and then later during Christmas, gave away 150,'' she says. "This Ramadan, I was happy to take the number to 460 packs with contributions from some lovely people in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Now, it's time to aim for Christmas and put together as many packs as possible in time for the festivities."
It's not just individuals helping Shirley; organisations like the Marriott Hotels in Dubai and the First Dubai Beaver and Cub Scout Colony have donated food and toiletries for the care hampers as well as books to sell.
"A friend knew some of the staff at the Marriott and told them what I was doing. They volunteered to help and have been involved since that first Christmas in 2009," she says.
"Last December, Marriott staff from both the Green Community and Deira bought items including toiletries, clothing, radios, clocks, sandals, sweets, food items and biscuits for the care packs."
The Cub and Beaver Scout Colony came up with an idea for how they wanted to contribute in a special way. "The children had beautifully decorated the boxes for Ramadan and Christmas 2010 with drawings," Shirley says.
One mother even came up with the idea to host a fund-raising quiz night for her daughter Mandy's birthday party. "It was such a lovely gesture and I made 22 packs with the funds that she raised at the party."
Smile is the reward
Shirley never gets bored of making the care packs and meeting the workers. "The smile on their face is my biggest reward," she says. "I feel particularly excited when I give away the gift-wrapped packs during the festive season as I feel they bring that much needed colour into their lives. Isn't that motivation enough?
"Most of us often forget that even the less privileged people in our neighbourhoods like to receive gifts. And through the Care Packs, we let them know in our little way that we do care about them and appreciate their work."
What the packs contain
Shirley's care packs contain toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, razors, socks, a towel, washing powder, a pillowcase, sheets or a blanket, sweets, drinks and biscuits. Donors are also welcome to contribute other items of choice.
How you can help
You can either donate to the initiative or purchase the items and get them to Shirley who will put it all together. Alternatively, you could volunteer to help purchase and collect the items or sell the books. If you wish to contribute to the care packs for Christmas 2011, contact Shirley Finnegan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Making a difference
Who: Shirley Finnegan
What: Distributing care packs among workers
How: Raising funds by re-selling old books donated to the initiative