A couple hoping to give 2,000 football shirts to children who otherwise might not receive a Christmas present said the project is a way of telling them “you belong” following backing from two celebrities.
Paul and Lizzie Watson, both 38, have raised more than £8,600 for Kitmas 2022, a crowdfunder launched to distribute shirts through schools, community centres and food banks across the UK, and which has also spurred on others to kickstart their own Kitmases.
The couple, who live in Stroud, Gloucestershire with their sons Luca, five, and 18-month-old Benji, said they were “jumping around the kitchen” when a £2,000 donation from James Corden came through, posted to Twitter by Mr Watson’s brother, comedian Mark Watson.
“I was on the school run and came back and saw it, I had a real moment,” Mr Watson, a journalist, told the PA news agency.
“I wrote a book a while ago about managing a football team in the Pacific and James really liked the book and quoted on the cover for it, so we were in touch 10 years ago, very briefly.
“I thought, I still have his contact details, he loves football and from my experience, he’s been very, very generous with me, and within a few hours, he said ‘I love this. Yeah, I’ll make a donation’.
“And then, sure enough, the donation popped in with a lovely message.”
Mr Watson said the donation will fund 100 football shirts.
It read: “This is such a great idea Paul and Lizzie. Happy Kitmas x x x”.
“It was the nicest moment – we were jumping around the kitchen,” Mrs Watson added.
Mr and Mrs Watson work with PR manager and stand up comedian Vix Leyton to organise the distribution of shirts across the UK.
It started in 2020 when the couple were able to organise about 1,000 shirts for children for Christmas, and last year managed to reach the 2,000 mark.
“We make a good team,” Mrs Watson, an artistic director at a cultural travel company, told PA.
“He has amazing ideas like this, but he’s also spent his whole adult life using football to help people.
“We do the logistics of it together, but that’s my strength.
“And then I also have really loved contacting the food banks and making connections with them.”
Mr Watson said that the project is a way of giving children “a sense of identity”.
“Growing up, we didn’t always get a football shirt – it was like the pinnacle of a present – but if you did, it was like that was your Christmas made, I still remember what that felt like,” he said.
“And I think what’s so sad now is that most families cannot buy football shirts for their children because the cost is so ridiculous. It’s a way of football saying ‘This isn’t for you’.
“But more than anything else, (getting a shirt) is like a sense of identity – it’s a sense that you are part of something, and that’s what football is.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘You’re part of this and you belong’.”
Kitmas, which is also supported by the donation of shirts as well as money to buy them, has inspired other groups to do their own “spin-offs”, including clubs such as Cheltenham Town and Frome Town.
“We were so blown away by the response, and it was the first Christmas Day as a grown-up I was excited about, knowing kids would be waking up and opening that present and parents would have less to worry about,” Ms Leyton, the “marketing arm” of Kitmas and the hub for collecting shirts in London this year, told PA.
“Money was tight for my parents growing up but they really put themselves out to give me that day every year, and I never really appreciated how intense that pressure must have been.
“It is so cool to see people taking this and running with it, particularly when it is making football more accessible to little girls,” she said of the Kitmas set up by Goal Diggers FC, a non-profit club making football more available to all women and non-binary people in east London.
Mrs Watson also spoke about the reaction of children when they open their Christmas presents.
“Because we’re middlemen, we don’t see the kids, but these are real children,” she said.
“I think there was a kid, his Barcelona towel was his prized possession in the world and then he got a Barcelona shirt from us and he literally couldn’t believe it, and he cried.
“And these are the stories that this year we want more of, because they remind us that this is a real thing we’re doing.”
Mr Watson said they hope to reduce “pressure on the parents” amid the cost-of-living crisis.
“We’re not going to be able to pay people’s heating bills, there’s other amazing people out there doing stuff like that,” he said.
“But what we can do is send some football shirts. (We are) just doing what is possible.”
To find out more about Kitmas 2022, go to: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/kitmas-2022.