The inspirational charity work carried out by Karen Williams from Sutton Coldfield has never been needed more – as Jenny Amphlett found out.
Karen Williams was at a crossroads in her life. The Sutton Coldfield mum of three had sold her family business and was looking for a new purpose. Now, six years later, she runs a charity she personally set up, has helped tens of thousands of vulnerable children across the UK and was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours.
It’s a staggering achievement from someone who simply started out seeking a new challenge.
“I did a lot of personal development then went to visit my family in Australia,” she said. “I read an article about a charity over there and it touched my heart. I was in the right place at the right time to get the inspiration for what was to come next – all the pieces of my jigsaw came together.
“Reading that article stirred a deep emotional reaction within me and as a mother I just had to do something for children in emergency care back home in the UK.”
Karen set up The Buddy Bag Foundation, a charity that provides rucksacks filled with essentials for children fleeing domestic violence.
The 59-year-old has raised more than £750,000 and alongside a team of volunteers has packed and delivered more than 30,000 of the bags.
Each bag costs around £25 to put together and contains essentials like toiletries, pyjamas and underwear plus comforting items including books and teddy bears.
Many of the youngsters who receive them arrive at a refuge, hostel or B&B in the middle of the night and have had to leave all their toys, clothes and other possessions behind.
“I came home from my trip to Australia, did some research and realised there was no service in the UK providing bags of love for children who go into women’s refuges,” Karen said.
“I had no experience in the charity sector and it took me nearly 12 months to get set up. It was certainly a learning curve.”
She set herself the goal of handing out 20,200 buddy bags by 2021, but has actually managed thousands more than that.
“With the assistance and support of all our volunteers we have realised this dream.
“We have packed over 30,000 Buddy Bags, far exceeding our initial target and look to the future with optimism at the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
“Thank you to all our volunteers and supporters – together we have achieved and are continuing to achieve something truly special.”
Importantly for Karen every penny donated to the charity goes towards the bags, with nothing taken out for admin costs. She built the charity up through business networking and has numerous professional partners who offer their time and services free of charge to help out.
Karen says she was ‘honoured and humbled’ to be awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours, particularly because of the publicity and awareness it could bring for the charity.
It follows on from a Points of Light award Karen received from then prime minister Theresa May in 2017 and being a finalist in Lorraine Kelly’s Woman of the Year contest in 2018.
But she says the best reward is hearing how much families appreciate the help she’s been able to give them.
“I get postcards from some of the children and I need a hanky when I read them,” she said. “They say things like thank you for caring, thank you for remembering about us or that it makes them feel that they matter. It makes me realise what a genuine difference we make for them.
“We always put a reading book in there – it might be the first book that some of them have ever owned.”
Domestic violence rates have soared during the pandemic, which has meant an even greater need for Karen’s bags.
“A lot of women’s refuges are full because of COVID-19,” said Karen. “We’re aware of many children in the Birmingham area having to go into basic B&Bs or hotels because there’s nowhere else for them, and those places have no facilities whatsoever for their particular needs. We’d like to be able to provide as many of them as possible with a buddy bag.
“The chances are that domestic violence rates have increased again during the third lockdown. Demand for our bags is greater now than it has ever been.”
Karen is always looking for companies or individuals willing to donate their services, money or items for goody bags. Crafters can also help out by knitting soft toys to go into the bags.
To find out more about Karen’s work and how you can help The Buddy Bag Foundation visit www.facebook.com/BuddyBagFoundation