Irené Pieters is a woman who works non-stop and sets herself almost impossible goals.

After being diagnosed with osteoarthritis, Irené Pieters’s career came to an abrupt halt. But every cloud has a silver lining. Marchelle Abrahams chatted to her about her first passion and second career.

After a 25-year-long career as a sports physiotherapist, Irené Pieters had no choice but to retire as a result of osteoarthritis in her hands.
“I was devastated at the time, but it gave me a chance to pursue my passion for charity,” says the creative mind behind the Santa Shoebox Project.

The initiative, now in its 11th year, has grown from strength to strength under Pieters’ guidance. The project, which started out as 180 boxes in Cape Town, has managed to double its numbers every year.

The seed is planted

Her passion for helping those in need led Pieters to a charity group called From The Children To The Children, as a volunteer. Not content with just helping out on a volunteer basis, she wanted to do more.

And then came her light-bulb moment: “I was inspired by an idea of the founder of the group - to distribute gifts at Christmas time to underprivileged children."

She was then appointed project leader for what was to become the Santa Shoebox Project. The initiative distributed 2000 boxes instead of the planned 600 in its first year.

Current numbers are sitting on a distribution of 100 000 gifts to underprivileged children per year across South Africa and Namibia.

To infinity and beyond

Pieters says the hard work didn’t stop there - the Santa Shoebox Project has now set a target of reaching a million under-privileged children by 2019.

“In 2012 I decided to cap the target at 100 000, which greatly assisted with planning and especially the logistics. We have been doing 100 000 for the past four years.”

She seems unperturbed by the mention of a million. “I believe we have the experience, the resources and the support of all of South Africa, so there is no stopping this March to a Million.”

The unexpected spin-off was what the Santa Shoebox meant for its supporters.

Staying inspired

Pieters is a woman who works non-stop and sets herself almost impossible goals.

She says: “The Santa Shoebox Project is my inspiration as it restores my hope and belief in mankind and it is living proof that there is so much more good than bad in our wonderful country.

“I have also learnt to trust the universe. We are provided with everything that we need. This project attracts to it everything that our message is about: kindness, caring, giving and sharing.”

Pieters has been married for 22 years and is mom to a 17-year-old daughter.

“My husband and my daughter have been part of this journey from day one, so not only are they my biggest fans, but in a way also my biggest ‘sponsors’ of time.”

And inspiring others

During the teething stages of the project, Pieters thought they were doing it exclusively for recipient children, but the unexpected spin-off was what the Santa Shoebox meant for its supporters. These were people who were looking for a fun, inexpensive outlet to channel their goodwill, and in the process make a profound difference to a child’s life.

The Santa Shoebox Project has now set a target of reaching a million under-privileged children by 2019.

How you can help

Visit www.santashoebox.org.za

About the Santa Shoebox Project

Register as a supporter and follow the easy steps to pledge a box (or more) to an underprivileged child, to purchase a Virtual Santa Shoebox. You can volunteer your time, become a sponsor, make a financial donation or support any of their other initiatives, all online.

The Santa Shoebox Project originated in Cape Town in 2006 with 180 shoeboxes. The success of the project can largely be attributed to its personal nature - donors give gifts to children whose names, ages and genders are known.

It is supported by an extensive network of volunteers across the country who give freely of their time, energy and expertise.

The following items are required to complete a Santa Shoebox: 

1. Standard-sized shoebox or plastic container, box and lid wrapped separately.

2. Bar-coded label which the donor will receive upon pledging online.

3. Toothbrush.

4. Toothpaste.

5. Facecloth.

6. Soap.

7. Toy.

8. Outfit of clothing.

9. School supplies.

10. Sweets.

* Please note that all items must be age-appropriate and new.