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Mother Christmas

In 2002, Jeanette Walsh, a social worker returned to work after recovering from a potentially deadly combination of a brain tumour and meningitis was given a task to 'co-ordinate Christmas' for children in care in Northamptonshire to ease her back into her job.

Since then, she has been 'Mother Christmas' to children growing up in the greatest need in the county, organising an annual gift appeal to make sure those with the least receive a present.

Jeanette's passion for helping children comes out of her own personal experience when as an abused, neglected and starved five-year-old she arrived in the care system - a life-changing experience.

Meeting Jeanette Walsh it is hard to imagine that this cheerful 62-year old gran had such an appalling start in life, but the first nearly six years of her life were spent in terror and grinding poverty with her seven brothers and sisters.

Born in Chester and raised in Manchester, Jeanette was the fifth of eight children. Her mum gave birth to her eldest brother when just 14 years old and the family grew rapidly, moving from house to house being thrown out by successive landlords when she got into arrears.

It was this poverty that led to the worst possible experience for Jeanette. Her mother sold her for sex to strangers with a series of men paying to abuse her. Vivid flashbacks still haunt her.

Jeanette said: "My mum was a nasty piece of work and so was my dad. The sexual abuse was when my mum would get different men. It was for money. My dad used to beat us up. He would be quite nasty and cruel.

"All of us children slept in one bed. It was always wet because one of us would wet the bed and it was never dry. We didn't have electricity in the house and used the outside streetlamp for light.

"For food she would peel a potato and give it to us raw. We never went to school. She would send us children round to the corner shop and she would have debts all over the place."

One freezing January, after the family had moved into yet another home in Manchester, Jeanette and three of her siblings went to explore the local park that one of her brothers had seen.

After playing on the swings she and one of her sisters were so cold they tried to find their way home.

"All the streets looked the same - like Coronation Street. Eventually we saw a policeman and I said 'do you know where we live?' He had heard of our mother. He took us to the police station and our mother had to come to collect us and take us home.

"I remember she hit my brother with her shoe, with a stiletto, and there was blood coming out of his head."

By this time Jeanette's dad had left the family and, unable to cope, her mum placed all but the oldest into the care of the National Children's Home (NCH).

On the day before Jeanette's sixth birthday six of the children left the family home. The brothers and sisters were separated with Jeanette going to a national children's home, arriving in a cab.

Jeanette said: "I told the taxi driver it was my birthday the next day and he gave me a shilling. I spent it on cola cubes and pineapple chunks.

"We had our own bed. We had three meals a day. We went to school. We were warm, It was wonderful."

A few days after she had moved in Jeanette found a doll and a teddy on her bed. Confused, she went to speak to the 'house mother' to explain she had found them making clear that she had not stolen the toys.

She said: "They said well it was your birthday a couple of days ago so they are presents. That was my first real birthday. I couldn't believe that someone would give me something.

"I loved living in the home. That year Father Christmas came round to each house and we were given presents by other people - strangers. It blew my mind that somebody would give us a present."

Jeanette continued to thrive under the care of National Children's Home system and did well at school excelling at sports, making it on to many of the teams.

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