Educated at Haberdashers School and a year studying in Israel, Michelle then completed her Psychology degree in Manchester, followed by an MA in psychotherapy and counselling at Regents College. She started her career working as a Probation Officer helping high risk criminals stay on track. As part of her job, she was involved in attending court hearings, prison visits, and even doing home visits to monitor their progress. Michelle explains, “It was a really fascinating field of work, and every day was so varied which made the job all the more interesting.” After working in this area for 10 years, she started to feel a little disillusioned by the system and with the ever growing amount of paperwork needed began to realise that many of the people she had tried to help, ended up re-offending and seemed to be destined for a life of crime.
“I found it particularly difficult, as I always wanted to do something that would help in a more meaningful and long lasting way, so I felt I needed to move into something that would benefit people more, making a measurable difference.” She was contacted by Rabbi Naftali Schiff who was looking to set up a new charitable initiative that would inspire young people to give of themselves, helping others within the community. The idea behind it was to encourage them and to facilitate – especially the youth, to give their time, and share their skills to help others. Michelle thought that it sounded like something she wanted to be involved in. As she explains, “I had just had my second child and wanted a new challenge. Giving to others was something that was very important to me and this was an exciting concept.” It started with a small committee and all the activities took place in my home; and gradually developed and blossomed and today GIFT (Give It Forward Today) runs a huge network of different programmes involving thousands of volunteers and initiatives based on this original concept.
One of the first projects that they worked on and that they are well known for, was setting up ways to utilise leftover food from functions within the community and ‘gifting’ it to those who might be struggling financially to ensure that families were able to eat properly. “We were acutely aware that there was a lot of waste that could be used to help others, so we set up groups of young professionals and students to collect leftover food from bakeries, grocery shops and even from caterers which could be given to families in need.”
Another area that Michelle focused on was finding ways to give families that may be struggling, possibly single parent families, or families with special needs children etc, a little extra help. She worked to match families with teenagers or students, who visit the families on a regular basis and are just there to take the pressure off. Michelle explained, “It offered something positive for both sides, and they all get a tremendous amount from it. It is amazing to see how much it can help a family, and it really is a win-win on both sides. For the families, it really makes a big difference to them and for the teenagers volunteering, they love being able to help in this way; make good friends with the families and they leave with a sense of purpose and sense of achievement.”
GIFT runs a number of different initiatives and programmes, to encourage people of all ages to get involved helping their community in some way and one of the ideas she is most proud of is ‘The GIFT BOX initiative’. Michelle launched Food GIFT Boxes around 10 years ago across London, Bournemouth and Manchester. Boxes can be found outside or inside all kosher stores, and collect over a hundred thousand pounds worth of food each year. GIFT It Forward, which was launched in a number of different schools, teaches children from a young age the value of giving to others. The basic idea behind it is that children bring to school toys and games of their own to donate to children that may not be as fortunate. As Michelle explains, “Some children get so many gifts for their birthdays or Chanukah that they don’t even know what to do with them all. GIFT It Forward allows them to give away something to another child who would appreciate it even more. It teaches them about making a difference and is often the first time that they are actually giving away something that belongs to them.”
Learning from a young age about being a giver, is something that she has actively shown her own three children who have grown up seeing the kind of work she does. Michelle explains, “For the first ten years of GIFT, all the food donations were sorted at my house, as we did not have a warehouse to store it, so they could see first-hand what I was doing and got involved in helping,”
She feels that this has given them a strong social conscience, and when her daughter and son celebrated their Bat and Bar mitzvahs, they did so in a meaningful way, celebrating in an Emunah children’s home in Israel and Zichron Menachem, a centre for children with life-threatening illnesses. They donated presents from themselves and their whole year groups to the children. As Michelle explains, “It was a truly amazing experience both for us and for the children and they were really overwhelmed by the generosity of the gifts that were donated.”
Giving is obviously something that is very much in her genes, and whilst she has influenced her children, she credits her mother, Sylvia O’H’, as the inspiration behind what she does. Unfortunately, Sylvia passed away earlier this year, but Michelle explains that despite her mother’s health issues, she was determined to achieve and make the most of every minute. She was always more than happy to help others. “My mother was an incredible woman and I learnt so much about giving and being a great role model. Even when she lost her sight, this did not stop her helping others. I am incredibly proud of everything that she was and achieved in her life”
Part of the thinking behind GIFT is to show the power of shared giving and this is something that is illustrated through another initiative run at schools around Shavuot. Pupils are encouraged to bring a flower into school and this is put together to create a beautiful bouquet which is donated to a family. Michelle explains, “So often working together with others on a project can achieve great things and gives everyone involved a good feeling.”
Since its inception, GIFT has expanded in a huge way and now helps over 2000 people weekly across the community with food parcels and practical help. Hundreds of GIFT volunteers now visit hospitals and care homes on a Shabbat afternoon and GIFT also runs a tutoring club on a Sunday morning helping those who are struggling with school work. GIFT informal educators work in schools across London and Manchester running hands-on educational sessions, inspiring and educating children to be more giving. GIFT’s aim is to get to the DNA of what it means to give as they believe it can be life changing for all involved.
Prior to working at GIFT, Michelle set up a charity outings’ group, affiliated to Norwood, called Ohr Hayeled, which offered a chance for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to have outings and days out on a monthly basis. She ran the organisation for around 10 years.
In recognition of the work that she does, Michelle was awarded the Norwood Helping Hand Award, which she felt was a tremendous honour and very humbling.’
Michelle loves working with such a great team of inspiring people at GIFT in addition to all the incredible volunteers who are willing to help others at the drop of a hat (or the ping of a WhatsApp message requesting help!) “After all these years at GIFT, I still wake up every morning excited to go to work, and feel privileged to be part of an organisation that spreads so much goodness and goodwill – not only for service users, but amongst the volunteers and partner organisations too.”
To find out more about GIFT, check out the website – www.jgift.org