With more people struggling just to feed their families, groups are setting up across Yorkshire trying to make sure children don’t miss out on those important treats. Nicky Solloway reports.
A specially-made birthday cake is the stuff of fond childhood memories. The character cake with your name and age on top, the layers of jam and butter icing, the coloured sugar paste infused with melted candle wax. A cake marks an anniversary like nothing else.
But not all children get a birthday cake. Parents struggling to put food on the table may not be able to stretch to a birthday present, let alone a cake. The child may be a young carer, or may have a parent in hospital. But now Free Cakes for Kids is stepping into the breach. Volunteer bakers offer to make a unique birthday cake for a child who would otherwise go without. They buy the ingredients and bake it in their own kitchen and the cake is then delivered to the child’s family.
It’s an idea which began in the United States and arrived in the UK five years ago and it’s snowballing quickly. There are now more than 60 groups across the UK, including Leeds, Halifax, Keighley and Sheffield, several of which have opened within the last few months. Keen baker Kate Thorpe decided to set up the Sheffield branch of Free Cakes for Kids in August after hearing about the project from a friend.
The group is working with community organisations and support services in the city to identify children who may otherwise go without a cake and she has signed up more than 40 philanthropic bakers.
“People who become volunteers tend to be people who are already baking a lot and they’ve fed all their friends and people at work and they say it’s really nice to be creative without consuming the calories yourself,” explains Kate. Indeed volunteers seem to be practically tripping over their apron strings in the scrabble to sign up to Free Cakes for Kids; not surprising perhaps when you consider the charity’s key ingredients.
“The volunteers seem to fall into two camps. There are the people who just love to bake and this is another way for them to be creative and then there are a lot of mothers with fairly young children who feel quite upset at the thought of a child maybe of a similar age to their own children not having a cake on their birthday.”
The charity works with homeless shelters, children’s centres, sheltered housing groups and schools across the city to identify children in need. Once a referral is made, the volunteer will be told about the child’s interests in order to create a cake that is unique.
“We ask that they all have the child’s name on it even if it’s a bit of a wobbly written name. It has to be just for that child,” adds Kate. In reality many volunteers spend hours with a cake cutter and a piping bag to produce elaborate designs which wouldn’t look out of place on The Great British Bake Off.
“I love baking but some of my volunteers absolutely humble me,” says Kate. “They call themselves hobby bakers and then they produce things that you could charge £100 for.”
As well as the usual rockets and princess cakes, the group has produced a Doctor Who Tardis cake for a 16-year-old boy and a One Direction cake for a 13-year-old girl. They recently baked a cake for a family from Syria who had just arrived as refugees in Sheffield and spoke hardly any English, but despite the language barrier it was clear to see what an effect the cake had made.
“They were just thrilled to bits,” says Kate. “I think what’s nice about Free Cakes for Kids is that it’s very personal. It’s very rewarding for the volunteers. If you donate to a food bank you don’t know where it goes whereas I can say to the bakers: ‘You’ve made a three-year-old girl thrilled and her mum is so happy’.”
The national network of Free Cakes for Kids has seen an explosion of interest over the last few months. Spokeswoman for the group, Kate Reid, says she thinks the rise in the number of volunteer bakers signing up has to do with two factors.
“People who love baking can’t really eat all the food themselves so this is a really nice way of giving their skills and talents to a great cause. Secondly, there is that connection to your own memory. A lot of them have really strong memories of their own birthday cakes and don’t want other people to miss out on those memories.”
Ilkley mum of three, Rachel Eydmann, has just set up a branch of Free Cakes for Kids in Keighley and has already signed up 13 volunteers.
“I’ve got three children of my own and my mum used to make the most amazing birthday cakes, it’s the thing I remember about my childhood,” says Rachel. “The thought of not having that experience is a real shame but it is something we can so easily do.”
To identify those children who may not get a birthday cake this year, Rachel is working with the Salvation Army, food banks and children’s centres across Keighley, including Strong Close Nursery and Children’s Centre.
The centre’s family and community services manager, Jenny Brown, has already lined up a couple of families to bake for in January and says she expects there to be a big demand.
“I think a lot of the children will have never had a proper homemade cake so this is going to be something new to many families. Even if you do have parents who can bake it’s about them having the money and the equipment and the electricity on their card to actually pay for it. It’s not just about the ingredients; it’s about the bigger picture. We have families who don’t even have an oven.”
Luckily a whole army of volunteers from Free Cakes for Kids have their weighing scales set and their wooden spoons at the ready to help save a child’s birthday this year.
All fired up for a special treat
Free Cakes for Kids is funded by volunteers, with the occasional donation from community groups and businesses. The Sheffield group is holding an official launch on Saturday, February 15 at Sheffield Central Library and hopes to raise enough money to make 200 cakes through a raffle, cake stall and second-hand cook book sale. It costs about £5 to make an individual home-made cake for a child.
A little boy who is mad about Fireman Sam had a special visit for his birthday recently. Fire-fighter Corinne Wilson from Sheffield delivered a fireman cake, baked by her mum, Kath Wilson to McKenzie at his school.
The charity is keen to hear from more volunteers. For information visit www.freecakesforkids.org.uk.
The number of people using food banks has tripled in the space of a year according to the Trussell Trust, which runs a network of Food Banks across the UK.