Four friends are spreading Christmas cheer and raising awareness about mental health – by walking dozens of miles dressed as Santa Claus and his elves.
Andy Dean, Paul Miller, Stuart Taylor and Paul Venables have all enjoyed getting out and walking during the lockdowns this year to improve their own mental health and get fitter.
And after learning Kidsgrove Rotary Club would be unable to have Santa travelling around the area on his sleigh due to the coronavirus pandemic, the group decided to step up themselves.
Now, with Andy dressed as Santa, the men are walking for about two to three hours everyday around their local North Staffordshire communities for seven days.
So far they have visited Kidsgrove, Whitehill, Newchapel and Packmoor, and with just three more days left they are hoping to bring their ‘Miles For Smiles’ walks to other areas.
Travel agent Andy, from Whitehill, runs Oasis Travel in Tunstall and has struggled with his own mental health while watching his business suffer due to Covid-19.
But taking part in the walks has really helped him through dark days this year and now he and the lads are raising awareness about the benefits of walking on mental health and raising money for charity.
The 46-year-old dad-of-four, who has been supported by wife Melody and his children Jasmine, April, Mackenzie and Evie, said: “From my own experience, I’ve suffered big time with mental health this year.
“It’s properly hurt me with what I do for a living as well. It’s something that inspired us to get out there walking and get our heads together and this has just been the icing on the cake.
“To give something back and see the reaction, it’s been amazing. Doing this has massively helped – I couldn’t feel fitter for one, and my mental health has been brilliant.
“When you’re walking, people say it clears your mind which I thought was a load of rubbish because I’m always thinking, but it really does clear your mind.
“I’m an outgoing person, but it’s been my mask because of depression. Behind closed doors, I just want to get in and lie on the sofa and do nothing, but this has inspired us to get out. We’re all buzzing to do it.”
The group has posted their visits on social media and have even fulfilled some requests, including one from a young girl who asked them to record a video for her mum who has cerebral palsy and loves Santa Claus.
Paul Miller sadly lost his father to Covid-19 this year, but he joined the group walking to improve his own health and support his friends.
The 53-year-old, of Harriseahead, said: “Deano (Andy) has had his struggles this year. He’s a travel agent, his business was going from strength-to0strength then Covid hit and people weren’t going on holiday and it hit him really hard.
“But he’s got a great family unit around him, he’s a well-know character around Kidsgrove and I think everyone has pulled together to help him out a little bit. But I think this walking has really been the tonic for him.
“It’s been immense. I find it very satisfying walking and it gets you away from everything else in the world and walking out with the lads has been inspirational really.
“It’s been emotional as well. We’ve heard some really sad stories and some really happy stories, but it’s been heart-warming being able to bring a smile to their faces.
“We’ve had such a bad year and I think with the latest news about Christmas being reduced to one day, it’s hard. But on our walks we’ve waved at people in windows and to get a wave back has been incredible.
“It’s been inspirational for all of us really.”
Project manager Paul Venables took up walking while on furlough and began writing a blog before he eventually joined Andy, Paul and Stuart on their ‘Miles For Smiles’ walks.
The 46-year-old dad-of-two, from Kidsgrove said: “It’s partly health and for me I didn’t realise I was on a weight-loss journey.
“It started in March 2019 and I’ve lost three stone in that amount of time, which was unbelievable.
“But before I knew it I was out with the guys pounding the streets in the rain dressed as an elf and having lots of fun.
“Saturday night was amazing. We had socially-distanced groups of people waiting for us in the streets, it was just phenomenal.
“I struggled to articulate just how special it was. Seeing the happy faces, young and old, was incredible. We left one street and got a round of applause, it was brilliant.
“I’m an over-thinker and it’s very easy to worry about things so going out with the guys and just going out for a walk really helps. I’ve got to know the area and met some fabulous people while out and about.
“It’s something that makes everyone happy, including us guys. I came in the first night and my cheeks ached from laughing and smiling so much it was that good.
“We’ve had a foul year, there’s no other word for it and to see people smiling, waiting in the rain, is just brilliant.”
Stuart Taylor, of Packmoor, began walking to lose weight and has dropped nearly two stone since he started.
The 47-year-old DHL worker said: “I don’t suffer with mental health myself, but I do have family members who suffer with it.
“Back in May I was about 18st 3lbs and I thought to myself I’ve got to do something about it so I just started walking.
“I’d seen Deano had started walking during lockdown and I knew the travel business was going down due to Covid so I messaged him on an off-chance and asked if he fancied going walking.
“It went from there really. We started one Saturday morning and we’ve carried on ever since.
“Then we decided, after the year everybody has had – one, we’ll do it for our walking and two, we’ll do it just to put a smile on people’s faces. And it’s just escalated from there.
“It’s phenomenal. The reaction has been mind-blowing, it’s overwhelming. We didn’t expect this sort of reaction – all we wanted to do was put a smile on people’s faces and give them something else to think about other than Covid.
“I’ve loved doing it. I’ve lost nearly two stone and while I don’t suffer with mental health, going out on the walks does clear your head. It’s awesome, I’m not stopping. I’ve got the bug.”
The group will bring ‘Miles For Smiles’ to an end on Tuesday. They are raising money to support W.A.T.C.H. (Walking and Talking Charity Hikes) – an organisation encouraging people to improve their mental health by walking.
Founded by ex-footballers Mark Crossley, Dean Windass, Jon Parkin, Chris Kirkland, Steve Howey and Nigel Jemson, the organisation is running a #walkingsbrilliant campaign to raise money for the NHS and mental health charities.
Andy, Paul, Stuart and Paul have set up their own JustGiving page to help support that campaign and so far have raised more than £1,700 against their initial target of just £500.
The lads are hoping to break the £2,000 mark and if you would like to support them, you can donate to their page here.
Andy added: “To have more than £1,700 donated is just beyond. We couldn’t have wanted for anything better. It’s been good. It’s in our brains now that we want to smash £2,000.”