IKEA '˜Children's Shopkeeper' Helen Blanchard to raise awareness of charity work

A children's department manager at IKEA Leeds is looking to encourage more colleagues to get involved with the home furnishing retailer's charitable arm after seeing work of its foundation first-hand.

Play time: Helen Blanchard, a member of staff at IKEA Leeds, with soft toys which the company sells to raise money for the IKEA Foundation. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Helen Blanchard, a ‘Children’s Shopkeeper’ at the Birstall store, recently visited two community based organisations and two refugee camps in Jordan.

Ms Blanchard says it was inspiring to see how Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi refugees had made homes out of corrugated iron huts at the camps.

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Being a former primary school teacher, learning through play was a subject close to Ms Blanchard’s heart.

One of the refugee camps Helen Blanchard visited.

She told The Yorkshire Post: “For me children playing is so valuable because that’s just how children learn.

“Every child should be able to play in a safe environment and that should be the case across the world because children are the next generation.”

During her four-day visit to Jordan, she met refugee families and was invited into their makeshift homes.

Ms Blanchard said hearing stories from the mothers was what hit the visitors the hardest.

Helen Blanchard with a group of children learning through play in Jordan.

She added: “They were asked what do they want for children and they said they just want their life back or they would like their home back.

“One mum stood up and she just wanted her husband back because he was still in Syria. Those kinds of things are what hit you.”

The trip, organised by the charity War Child, saw the group taken to the Zaatari refugee camp. Ms Blanchard said: “Without actually being there you can’t imagine the size of the place. It’s absolutely huge. People aren’t allowed to leave.

“That was the thing that struck me. It was a bit like a prison in a sense. The Syrians had to flee their homes, come to this refugee camp but then they were stuck in there because they’re not citizens of Jordan.”

Spreading the word: Helen Blanchard, from IKEA Leeds, hopes to spread word of the IKEA Foundation's work amongst her colleagues. Pic: Tony Johnson.

The camp has been there for over six years and the refugees had made it their home. Ms Blanchard was struck by how hospitable they were.

“They were just so generous and wanting to give even though they have got nothing,” she said. “They still wanted to invite you into their home.”

She had gone there with preconceptions of seeing scenes of devastation. Ms Blanchard said: “By any means you or I wouldn’t want to live in those conditions but they’ve made those places their home and War Child and all the other agencies have set up some amazing facilities for them.” The trip has inspired Ms Blanchard to spread the word amongst her colleagues not only at the Birstall store but across the wider business.

The home furnishing specialist has 396 employees at its Leeds store and 11,000 across the UK.

She said: “When we were there the people that saw us said they’re so grateful for IKEA and actually I felt a bit guilty because I hadn’t actually done anything.

“It made me feel so proud to work for a company that does so much for other organisations. The fact that we don’t shout about it is something that I want to change.”

Children affected by conflict get helping hand from Foundation

Former schoolteacher Helen Blanchard got involved when she saw the Let’s Play for Change campaign, where money is donated to the IKEA Foundation.

This money is distributed to UNICEF, Save the Children, Room to Read, Handicap International (Humanity and Inclusion), Special Olympics and War Child.

Jessica Ridgewell, partnerships manager at War Child, said: “Having the IKEA co-workers on our recent trip to Jordan was a great experience for all involved and highlights the positive impact the IKEA Foundation has made.

“Together we’ve helped thousands of children to play, learn and develop.”

The charity is looking for donations to its Learn to Live appeal for children affected by conflict. For details visit: www.warchild.org.uk/what-we-do/campaigns/learn-to-live