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Heidi Miettinen established the Facebook group Jouluapua.Heidi Miettinen knows that not all Finnish families can afford to buy Christmas presents for their children. She set up a Facebook group that is trying to fix this situation.

Heidi Miettinen was halted by the news: "Tens of thousands of Finnish homes can't afford Christmas food or gifts without help from others. 130,000 children live below the poverty line," reported YLE's website.

130,000 children – how many of them stand quietly in the school yard after the holidays to listen what all the gifts their friends have received, wondered Miettinen at her home in Aalborg, Denmark.

"I thought that if I could only help these families in some way."

But this seemed to be a difficult task. Miettinen was on a long-term sick leave from her work as a hotel manager. Even if she were able to initiate some kind of Christmas present gathering, she wouldn't be able to store the things at home, nor would it be simple to send the things to Finland.

But the idea wouldn't leave her alone. She spent a couple days behind the computer. Then it started.

"The mother of a family of 12 asks for help. Their economic situation has become desperate, after the father of the house fell seriously ill."

Heidi Miettinen, 35, is a Finnish-Danish hotel manager, who lives in Aalborg, Denmark together with her son, her Danish husband and his two children. She moved to Denmark 16 years ago, after falling in love with a Danish man.

What is known about her?

She established a charity page Jouluapua (Christmas help) on Facebook. Through this page, anyone who wants can deliver Christmas food or presents directly to people who need help in Finland. This is the second year when the page is working.

What is not known about her?

Her hobby is knitting. "I wish for some great wool yarn as a Christmas gift. I would knit a skirt for myself for winter months from that. The cold can harm sick bones."

"A young student is pregnant and alone. There's no support network to help and she lives on income support. She hopes for assistance and support with the upcoming baby."

"A single mother has financial difficulties. She hopes for food aid and hygiene products to give as a gift to her 17-year-old son."

"The mother of a family of seven is on sick leave. Often there are a few days in a month when the family eats only bread, as there's not enough money to buy food."

Such messages are on the Jouluapua (Christmas Help) Facebook page that Miettinen subsequently founded. Here low-income families can send their wishes for Christmas gifts.

When Miettinen saw the first posts, she was tempted to cancel the whole project.

The situations of the families were worse than she would ever have imagined. Having worked in the hotel industry no one had prepared Miettinen to face people's miseries.

"I wondered if I could carry on reading these messages. It felt awful that people have things this way."

Different perspective

Miettinen understood that she has a privileged life. At her childhood home in Nilsiä, vegetables were grown in their own garden, but there was no skimping: at Christmas, her father lit big candles in the yard of the country house and the mother put ham, casseroles and porridge on the table. Santa Claus always came.

Her mother saw poverty the closest, when she visited small villages as a home-caretaker.

"She never told us children about this in detail, but she pointed out that we should be happy with what we have, because not everyone is in the same situation."

With Jouluapua she saw clearly what her mother had only alluded to.

"Many are asking for hygiene products, shampoo and things like that, for presents for their children. Then you can talk about poverty."

At the time of going to print, Miettinen's Facebook group has 53,000 members.

The idea is simple: everyone who wants to can send or take gifts or food directly to the door of people who need them. The donations don't circle through intermediaries, but the helper and the recipient can get directly in contact with one another.

Around 400 Finnish families have received gifts and food during this and last Christmas. There have been about 1,000 helpers, Miettinen estimates.

Any organisation would be pleased if it would have 25,000 supporters online. In comparison: the Finnish Red Cross has more than 50,000 Facebook like's.

"I thought at first that if I get a few hundred people who like the page and I can help a couple of families, it would already be good."

Miettinen is running Jouluapua by herself from her home in Denmark. She receives families' Christmas wishes by e-mail and selects those people who need the help most urgently.

Things that she won't give up

• Morning coffee

I don't know how I would be without coffee – I haven't tried! While drinking my morning coffee, I read new messages and comments in Jouluapua group.

• Christmas church

Going to church divides Christmas Eve into the day and the evening. During the day, you can still be busy, but when you step out from the church, the daily bustle has been forgotten and the Christmas peace descended.

• Night-hug

We have a bedtime ritual with my children and husband: a kiss and a hug. My son can't go to sleep without this.

Close assistance

For those caring and helpful Finns, they can choose a family that lives in the same area from a map. This is perhaps the secret of Jouluapua's success.

"Many people want to help the residents of their own village or city – really the very closest ones."

Last year, 12 per cent of Finns were considered to be low-income earning. In a one-person household this means less than 1,170 euros as a monthly income.

While the use of money varies, people who send messages to Jouluapua agree on one thing: there is so little money, that there's nothing in life that could be considered as a luxury.

"A good example is the Internet. In Finland, many low-income people still have access to it. But then there are also families who even don't have this. And even if others can afford an Internet connection, they don't have enough to go to the cinema or take the children swimming."

Miettinen has noticed that this year there are more long-term unemployed amongst people who ask for help than last year. Many of them lack a support network completely: there's no one who would give even one gift.

The letters from single parents make Miettinen especially sad. From these you can often draw that the other parent doesn't participate in giving children Christmas presents at all.

"Divorced parents aren't always able to talk about their children's Christmas between each other. It breaks your heart."

Miettinen's son Christoph is glued to the Christmas calendar programme on television every evening. The nine-year-old loves Danish Christmas dishes, such as duck and sugar-browned potatoes. An adult can shrug their shoulders to materialism and spend Christmas intangibly, but it's too much to ask from a child, says Miettinen.

That's why she founded specifically Jouluapua, instead of a charity dedicated to birthdays or summer holidays.

A time of illness

Some years ago, Heidi Miettinen sat in a hotel conference room and laughed. The insurance company clerk had suggested that she take health insurance.

"I said that I don't have time to get sick. I was thinking of working until I'm 65 years old."

Two years ago, however, she fell ill.

The pain felt like someone was beating her hipbone with a hammer. She was examined for signs of cancer during the year. The doctors were puzzled.

Miettinen remembers exactly when the diagnosis came. It was 19 December 2013, her birthday. Establishing Jouluapua had taken a few months. The pain was so severe that updating the page was possible only while lying in bed.

The doctor informed her by phone that they had discovered that Miettinen has a rare bone disorder, fibrous dysplasia. It isn't possible to heal completely from it, but it wasn't cancer and it's not fatal.

"I told the doctor that he gave me the best birthday present ever."

This Miettinen, who had laughed about the health insurance to the insurance clerk, couldn't imagine that misfortune could fall upon her.

Now Miettinen freezes up when those who request help are criticised in Internet forums. Some advise that the family of ten should be left without help because they have had so many children. Others think that those who can afford to feed a dog don't deserve support.

Miettinen has one message for people writing such things on forums: there's no point to criticise. There is a reason for everyone's beliefs.

"If you suddenly fall ill or become unemployed, it doesn't take away the members of your family!"

The pain makes most of her hotel manager work impossible. But Jouluapua is a good reason to get out of bed, says Miettinen.

People's astonishing kindness

"One family helps the same family this Christmas as last year and also brings them food other times during the year. One helper offered to take the whole family Christmas shopping. The children get to choose gifts and then they go and eat together."

"And there are many of those who will donate although they don't have more than used things to give and can't even afford the postage."

The pleasure derived from offering this assistance encourages her to continue.

Now it seems from this that children's wishes have been heard and at Christmas there are both grateful children and happy parents. "I'm a man and men don't cry, but now tears just come to my eyes," a father wrote recently.

Sometimes, however, when families' tales appear to be too heavy to read, Miettinen thinks of her husband's words from a night when she was completely overwhelmed of families' bad situations, and had seriously contemplated whether she could continue.

"He said that I have to accept the situation of the families. That I shouldn't become gloomy, but to be happy that I have the opportunity to help."

This article is also based on interviews with people who have received and given help through Jouluapua.

Jouluapua Facebook group:

www.facebook.com/pages/Jouluapua

Jouluapua map of families in need:

www.map.karttapalvelut.fi/jouluapua

ESSI LEHTO – HS
MERLE MUST – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
IMAGE: LARS MØLLER

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