Waking up to bleak Christmas
The collapse of Farepack has left about 3,000 people across Northern Ireland in the lurch. Claire McNeilly asks two families caught up in the fiasco how they will cope this Christmas
The area beneath the Robinson family's Christmas tree is looking particularly bare this year.
Linda Robinson had been hoping to buy something special for her eight-year-old son Keelan, who has learning difficulties.
But that all changed on October 13, when hamper savings company Farepak went into liquidation.
Now there won't be many presents and, more worringly for Linda - and Farepak's many other victims - there won't be much of their hard-earned money coming back either.
Although a Farepak Relief Fund was quickly established to compensate victims, the kitty totalled about £6m before yesterday's 6pm donation curfew - representing only about 10% of the money lost.
In the absence of any last-minute flurry, that means savers can now only expect to receive about 15p back for every £1 they saved.
Linda, a 36-year-old Farepak agent from south Belfast, had been collecting money for 26 other customers. When the company went bust she lost £3,000. Collectively, her friends and family lost £19,585.
Like her, most of those affected are single parents - or people on benefits.
"I was scrimping and saving all year," she said.
"I haven't been out with my friends for 12 months. I don't smoke or drink. I'd rather go without, so I can get things for Keelan.
"It was a great way of saving for me. Come November, I knew I would have money for Keelan's birthday, Christmas toys, food and clothes, and there was always extra left for January.
"I looked forward to wee luxuries from Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer; they are too expensive for me normally."
Just under six weeks before goods were supposed to be delivered, Swindon-based Farepak unceremoniously collapsed.
Far from an early Christmas present, customers were told to expect no hampers, no vouchers - and, most distressingly, no compensation.
"It'll be 100% different this Christmas; just basic. We have a tree, but there will be no decorations on the windows and no crackers," said Linda.
"I borrowed some money from a friend, so Keelan will have a few presents.
What I have for him so far only fills a carrier bag - a couple of pairs of pyjamas from Primark and two Monsters in your Pocket toys that he wants from Woolworth."
An estimated 3,000 people in Northern Ireland lost savings - to be reclaimed in vouchers hampers.
And, in many cases, scandal-hit Farepak has ruined the festive period for more than one member of the same family.
"I used to take Keelan and his friend to the Ice Bowl at Christmas, but now I can't afford to. That's one wee, stupid thing I can't do this year," Linda said.
"My mammy, daddy and my daddy's brother are all in the same boat. This Christmas won't be a big thing, but we'll spend it together. It's not what you have, it's what you make of it."
The Farepak fiasco has cost an estimated 150,000 people across the UK about £15m.
Kircubbin single mum Sharon Gilmore, who holds down two jobs, learned that her savings of £1,000 had been wiped out.
Her granny, Joan Johnston, who is in her 70s, was a Farepak agent. The company's demise cost 11 local people £4,519.
"How do you tell your children they won't be getting any Christmas presents?" Sharon said.
"I don't know how I'm going to get through Christmas sensibly this year without getting into debt. It's a vicious circle; I saved with Farepak to avoid debt."
The 31-year-old lollipop lady, who also works in a restaurant and has two sons - Steven (14) and Lee (8) - said her family had been badly hit.
"The money was for a Christmas tree, toys, food, decorations, presents - everything," said Sharon.
"The boys will be disappointed. Maybe they'll get a few bits and pieces, but I only have one pay cheque before Christmas."
And she added: "No one has any Christmas spirit this year. My mum and dad also lost £450, but I know there's no point in crying about what happened.
"I feel sorrier for my sister Ann-Marie. She had £900 wrapped up in the scheme and she has five children - aged between eight months and 13."
Belfast mother-of-six Tracy Davidson lost £900. Her sister Mandy McAllister lost £2,700.
Tracy, a 31-year-old single mother, said she is devastated for her children - Chelsea (13), Holly (12), Brody (6), Robyn (5), Andy (2) and McCoist (1).
"Losing all my savings was a big blow. At the moment I have nothing. I think Christmas will be depressing," she said.
"The older kids understand, but when the younger ones see other children out with their prams and dolls, or Brat cars on Christmas Day, it will be the worst time of their life."
Despite public and private efforts to boost the coffers of the relief fund, the shortfall in terms of money lost yesterday stood at 90%.
"McCoist has a hole in his heart and I have cystic fibrosis, so almost all my money goes on heating the house," said Tracy.
"My children have been robbed. I saved for nearly a year and I really depended on those vouchers."
And she added: "The best part of Christmas is when the kids wake up and see their presents. This year what are they going to wake up to?"