Tag Archives: camps

NEAW 2017 – Wings to fly

As a parent, one of the biggest challenges you face is helping your child grow in self-confidence, develop independence and to ultimately give them the wings they need to fly away from the security of the family home. There are so many obstacles to overcome along the way and when a chronic illness is thrown into the mix, it can feel almost impossible to let your child take those first steps on their own. Our determination to not let EGID define either child means that every day is an opportunity to let go of our own anxieties and concerns, and encourage them to make their own decisions regardless of the limitations that health, medicine and diet place on them. Of course, much as we work to equip G and M with the skills they’ll need as they grow up, I know that they need to learn so much more than what Mike and I can teach them on our own and so we always look for any opportunity to develop their learning from experiences that are beyond our ability to give.

That’s why once again this year, I completed the application forms for both G and M to attend the fantastic camps offered by charity, Over The Wall, knowing that their respective weeks away from home will be all about friendship and understanding and being amongst equals and building self-esteem and so, so much more. When G came home from the South Siblings Camp last year, she was a different child to the one who had left us just 5 days before. The time spent with others who have a similar home life to her was invaluable as she realised that her life experiences didn’t isolate her in those circumstances; and the focus on her and making sure that she had the best time she could helped G to find a self-worth that she had been struggling to develop at home and at school. Likewise, M had what could only be described as the best week ever as he was able to spend a week away from home without family for the first time in his life. He tried his hand at activities that had terrified him before and he too found great comfort in the realisation that he is not on his own in his health challenges.

We were all delighted when G heard she had a place at this year’s Siblings Camp and we couldn’t wait to hear all about her adventures there as a Green Girl. From the moment I dropped her off with some familiar faces, including the unexpected, but much welcome presence of G’s buddy from the GOSH YPF who was volunteering for the very first time, I knew that she was destined for another great week. Their unfailing attention to detail and care for the young people they were responsible for during the camp was impressive. We received a phone-call on the second night to say that whilst G was having an amazing time, she was struggling with the “fancy” gluten- and dairy-free food that the chefs were lovingly preparing for her and wasn’t really eating as much as they would like.  A quick catch-up to understand G’s food preferences and the reassurance that they would continue to keep an eye on her was all I needed to be certain that their care was absolutely everything I could want it to be.

M, Mike and I were all able to make the journey to pick G up at the end of her week away and were all immersed in the joy that is the camp bubble of OTW for the short time that we were there. Our Green Girl had tried her hand at most things, exceeded her own limitations and came away with a much-deserved pride in her achievements. This photo of a beaming G at the top of the climbing wall reflects her determination to overcome her self-proclaimed fear of heights and the pride she felt when she surpassed what she managed last year to achieve: more than she had ever believed herself capable of doing. Unlike the previous year, when she had been reluctant to take part in the Talent show, this time round, she went prepared with a routine she’s been working on during her school dance club and performed with a confidence and grace that reaped an impressive number of compliments as well as moving her YPF buddy to tears with her passion for her dance. G became good friends with several in her team and has been keeping in contact with them in the weeks following camp. She has developed a confidence and willingness to take on new challenges, knowing that, with a little bit of self-belief and perseverance, no mountain is too big for her to conquer.

It is thanks to Over The Wall that my children are becoming all that they can be and are learning that chronic illness doesn’t have to be a hurdle to anything they want to do. Over The Wall truly gives both our children wings to fly and our thanks just don’t seem to be enough.

This year we have decided to continue our support of the amazing charity, Over The Wall and their camps. If you’re able to donate even a very small amount, please follow this link to my Virgin Money Giving Page where your donation will help more children living with chronic illness like G and M by giving them and their families a chance to enjoy some much-needed time away from it all.

 

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Best. Week. Ever.

Back at the end of March, G was lucky enough to attend the amazing Over The Wall sibling camp and had the experience of a lifetime. I knew just how much of a success that week away from home had been almost the minute she stepped off the bus as she asked with fervour if we could apply for her to go again next year. The last few weeks have been filled with a mix of emotions as M was thrilled to learn that he had been offered a place on the OTW Health Challenges camp this August, but the ongoing drama with his broken leg left us questioning whether he’d actually be able to go (of course he would, it’s a camp for kids with health challenges after all), and take part  (well as best as his leg and determination would allow), and get from it as much as his sister had (we could only hope). Fortunately, the final fracture clinic appointment that saw M being given the all-clear and discharged from the care of the orthopaedic team fell on the Friday before IMG_0791[1]he was due to head off to camp on the Monday and the assurance of the consultant that his leg was at long last fully healed gave M the confidence he needed that he could fully participate in all the activities on offer during the week.

It was a major event in our household. It’s the first time that M has been able to go away from home without being with family; he’s never even had a sleepover because of his bowel problems and sleep issues and so it was unsurprising that our car journey to Dorset was eerily quiet as he struggled to get his anxieties under some semblance of control. It was a very pensive boy who clung to my hand as we found our way to the welcome desk to sign him in, although by the time I left around 2 hours later, with medicines handed over to the Beach Hut medical team and clothes unpacked and safely put away, he was starting to warm a little to his surroundings and had already enjoyed a hysterical couple of games of Guess Who? with 2 of the volunteers. Seeing the other children chatting and laughing as they arrived on-site, it was easy, even for me, to forget that these are children living with serious illnesses. Illnesses which are sometimes life-limiting and are always life-impacting. My child was one of them. IMG_0792[1]And when M commented on how comfortable his bed was compared to the ones in hospital I could see the volunteers in the room with us, both of whom were new this year, take a deep breath, unexpectedly shaken just a little by this vivid reminder that every child there is facing a chronic illness that is not always obvious at first glance. I was not immune to the pathos of that situation and my heart broke a little that this was his first thought, his opening response to this new experience.

Knowing he was settled and in safe hands meant that I could leave the site almost without a backwards glance. I could see he was torn between wanting to give me a hug and kiss goodbye and not wanting to show affection in front of his new room-mates, so I offered a quick hug and a kiss on the head before heading back to my car, not giving him opportunity to wobble. Despite concerns to the contrary from other people, this Mummy was fine with leaving her boy there because I had absolute confidence that they would take care of him and support him and make sure he had a week where the medical implications of his everyday world were not at the forefront of his mind. The lack of communication during the week could easily have worried me senseless, but instead I knew that it really was a case of “no news is good news” as camp would only get in touch if things were going wrong. I was also confident that they were more than able to meet his dietary requirements and would make the effort to give him meals that were more than just simple rice and chicken. Not long after the end of G’s sibling camp, I menuhad been sent a draft menu for M that one of the camp chefs had devised based on his safe foods at the time and we were all drooling at the sound of some of the dishes. In the 2 weeks leading up to camp, OTW contacted me again to check whether there had been any changes to his diet and to reassure me that they were prepared for the challenge of feeding him whilst he was there.

I can’t even begin to describe how I felt when I picked him up the following Saturday. G joined me for the drive to Dorset and was able to share so many precious memories of her own as we went through the gates and along the drive towards the house. We pulled up to the grassed area which was ablaze with colour as the various groups gathered to wave goodbye to all the campers as they started their journey home. M was the last Orange Boy standing and the farewell given to him by the team volunteers saw more than one of us with tears in our eyes. Seeing this group of wonderful adults, who had become his family for the week, surround him and sing “M, we love you, deep down in our hearts…deep down….” to him with genuine affection brought a definite lump to my throat, not least because M was equally overcome by his emotions and obviously struggling not to give into them in public.

IMG_0812[1]As they lined up outside the car and waved us off, the atmosphere inside was in stark contrast to when we arrived as M sat smiling bravely, with tears rolling down his cheeks because he wasn’t ready to leave camp and go back home. He was emotionally and physically exhausted, but refused to let sleep overcome him, instead spending the entirety of our homeward journey sharing every tiny aspect of the week he’d just enjoyed. As M told us about camp, he was worried that he would hurt my feelings when he said that the chef cooked some delicious meals that were, in the most part, “..even better than yours Mummy!”, but I didn’t mind a bit. His close new friendship with one of the other boys in his team, who also had food allergies, meant that neither of them felt isolated as they sat next to each other as their food was served at each meal. And my heart swelled when he said he hadn’t really missed us or thought of us that much because he had been having such a good time as I understand that that was so much more than I could ever have wanted for his first experience away from home.

It’s hard to encapsulate just why this week was such a significant one for M, but it really has been an incredible and life-changing experience. For once he felt normal and not the exception in the group, and that alone is priceless to me.  M’s confidence has soared as he pushed himself, and his body, to the limit and tried new activities that would have scared him before and his honesty impressed me as he relayed just how terrifying some of those new experiences had been until he had a go and conquered those fears. He has developed more independence and an even greater awareness of other people that reflects more maturity than he had before. Yesterday he took responsibility for making his own breakfast and even asked G and me what we wanted to eat so he could make our breakfasts too. That may seem like nothing much, but for a child where the world really has revolved around his needs over the last decade, it was a huge shift in attitude.

My words cannot do justice to the time he had at OTW camp, but I know how fantastic it was as he is already asking if he can go back again – not just next year, but every year until he’s too old to be a camper any more. What’s more, his aim is to become a volunteer at camp eventually if he can. M expressed it best when he told me it had been the Best. Week. Ever.

 

Over The Wall

It was last summer when I first heard about Over The Wall and the amazing camps they run across the UK for children with serious health problems. M’s GOSH and EGID friend, R and his big sister, I otwwere fortunate to go to one and the photos and comments about it posted by their Mum, Annie left me determined to find out more and see whether M might similarly qualify for a place.

Over the Wall is a UK-based charity that is part of the international SeriousFun Children’s Network, which is based on an original idea set up by actor Paul Newman in the 1980s. He identified that the popular US summer camps attended by thousands of American school children every year often left out children living with chronic health conditions because of the inability of camp volunteers to cope with the often complex medical needs. His vision was to open up that opportunity to every child, regardless of their health needs, and he helped to provide full support for every child whilst they were away from home. These children got the full “camp” experience as they were unaccompanied by parents or carers and were able to enjoy a touch of “normal” in their otherwise complicated lives. From that simple starting point, one camp spread across the US and into countries across the world and soon followed the realisation that not only did the sick child miss out, but so, all too often, did their siblings and the idea for a separate siblings camp was formed.

I was delighted to learn about the siblings camp and, feeling that this was another great opportunity for G to escape the constraints of a sick sibling and be surrounded and supported by others in the same situation, duly applied; and so it was that a couple of weeks ago, G headed off to deepest, darkest Dorset for a week of serious fun. Just as her Young Carers group gives her the opportunity to have time away from M with other local youngsters in similar supporting roles, G spent the week with other 8-17 year olds from across the South of England and Wales, who all have 1 thing in a common: a brother or sister living with a chronic health problem. IMG_2504It was a week to be herself, not defined or viewed in her role as M’s big sister, and encouraged to take time to focus on herself without worrying about M and how he would feel.

The children who attend are split into 8 groups: 4 colours determined by their age, with orange for the youngest and blue for the oldest; and then each colour split into separate boys and girls teams. Volunteers are a key part of the camps and their numbers match camper numbers, so for the 60+ children on the 2016 South Siblings Camp, there were 60+ volunteers supporting them, encouraging them and making sure they had fun. During the week the teams participate in a number of activities, from swimming to archery and from climbing to arts and crafts and much, much more. Their days are carefully planned with breaks and an after lunch rest hour, which G tells me was strictly adhered to, as well as a cabin chat every evening, where the teams reflect on their days and every member is awarded a bead to recognise what they’ve achieved. IMG_2589Discos, team games, inter-team challenges, morning singsongs, new activities, skills learned, old favourites and even a talent show sum up G’s week away.

G’s enthusiasm about her time on camp has been wonderful to hear and she was keen to teach M the camp songs and share so many snippets of everything she got up to whilst there. I love the fact that there was little or no discussion about their chronically ill siblings, but instead the focus was well and truly where it needed to be – on these children who all too frequently miss out. I was impressed with the array of meaningful mementoes that G brought home with her, as impressed as she was delighted. More than just her purple OTW t-shirt and a black one for M, but also a carefully crafted wooden bird-box, team and camp photos, a hand-print card holding the reflections of the team – both peers and volunteers – on who G is as a person and why they appreciated her, and that precious collection of beads reflecting her achievements during the week, recognised by her team volunteers and accompanied by a written record of why they felt she had earned them. All of these things have built up her self-confidence in those few days away and have helped her feel even more valued within this new group of friends.

For us, it was an unnaturally quiet week in the household and there was a definite sense of something missing from our every activity. IMG_3019M was reluctant to admit to missing having G around to play with and torment, but his move to sleep in her bed every night she was away revealed the depth of those feelings he didn’t want to show.

As a parent, you know you’re on to a good thing when you child asks for more and G has already asked if we can apply for her to go again next year if at all possible. Her enthusiasm about her experience has bubbled over and infected the whole family with M now having everything firmly crossed that his application for a place on the August Health Challenges Camp is successful. That would see him having those same opportunities to enjoy as G in an environment that we can be confident will be safe for him as there are medical volunteers and 1-to-1 support for the chronically ill children. Even better, the children have decided to make OTW the focus of their fundraising efforts during National Eosinophil Awareness Week this May. The one thing I haven’t mentioned is that these camps are offered completely free to those children who attend, making them truly accessible to all, which is a really fantastic part of this charity. Any funds that G and M can raise will help make a huge difference to others like them and if you’d like to make a small donation, you can do so via this link or the button on the right, with our thanks.

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March comes in like a lion

Ever had one of “those” days? You know, the ones where you’re already insanely busy and barely have time to breathe and yet everything that could conceivably go wrong, does go wrong to an unbelievable extent, plus those few extra and unexpected hiccups and challenges that appear along the way. After the last 48 hours, I appear to be heading into not just one of “those” days or even one of “those” weeks, but more realistically, one of “those” months. The next few weeks promise to be extremely busy and I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll get everything done on time and in the right order. You know it’s a sad state of affairs when we’re only on the third day of the month and I’m already counting down to the start of the next one.

Wales from space, courtesy of UK astronaut, Tim Peake

Wales from space, courtesy of UK astronaut, Tim Peake

The month started with our rather low-key marking of “Dydd Dewi Sant”, or St David’s Day for those of you not au fait with the Welsh language. Fortunately, this simply required some frantic scrabbling around my drawers hunting out the daffodil brooches that the children and I wear every year and remembering to pin them securely to school jumpers before heading out the door. The children were both keen and proud to wear their daffodils, though equally unimpressed that their friends didn’t know why they wearing them and so took the opportunity to quickly educate their classes. If I’d been more organised, I might have posted on the day itself, but I wasn’t and I didn’t, so this is me recognising that celebration of my heritage now.

But after that gentle start to the month, things have already started to ramp up. The next four weeks include:

Gotta love my left-field boy - who better than Ford Prefect from HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy!

Gotta love my left-field boy – who better than Ford Prefect from HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

  • World book day and required costume x 1
  • parents evenings x 2
  • school book fairs x 2
  • M-friendly croissants (eek!) for French role-play at school with just 3 days advance notice to attempt adapting my MEWS-free recipe
  • Mothers Day
  • riding lessons
  • a 10th birthday (how did he get to be a decade old?)
  • birthday celebrations, including themed party and cake
  • class assembly x 1
  • dentist appointment
  • hair appointment
  • GOSH appointment
  • Easter
  • Performing Arts Exams x 2
  • school play, which translates into costume provision, rehearsals and performances
  • Spa day – a late birthday celebration which will be much-needed as it comes in the middle of the busiest week
  • events linked to school topics which will undoubtedly require some inventive cooking from me
  • preparations for a sibling camp for G, which gives her a week away with other youngsters in similar situations and, more importantly, a week away from M

gin-and-tonI’m sure that there will be things I’ve already forgotten and likewise, there’s no doubt that there will be more items added to my list as March passes by. Needless to say, I will be blogging about many of these occasions and just how I overcome the challenges of taking my M-friendly cooking and baking a step further than I ever imagined possible. Once all of these things are out of the way, it’ll be time for a well-deserved drink and, in case you’re wondering, mine’s a large gin!

Day 5: But who supports the supporters?

Family on Blackboard-webWhen you are tube-fed, I think it’s only natural to expect the support of your nearest and dearest, especially in the case of the tube-fed child. In a recent interview about her MS diagnosis, actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler from the US TV show “The Sopranos” said that “when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it.” and this really resonated with me. M, I hope, has never needed to question the unfailing and unconditional support that Mike and I will give him along every step of his journey, but it’s not just us who have walked that way with him over the last 12 months. Without any say in the matter, G has been dragged along for the ride too and has been a great comfort and support to M when it matters most, arguments and fallings-out aside. I have talked before about the amazing community that surrounds our family, but G has been something of an unsung hero in the story. Over the last few years we have seen her struggle to cope with the reality of having a chronically ill brother, which has manifested itself in behaviour and attitudes that are less than ideal and which need love and understanding in the most testing of times. We work hard to try to give G as much time as we can, but sometimes that can’t be as much as we’d want, especially when going through a particularly tough time with M. Sometimes siblings need more time than the parents can find, so who is it that can help parents support these young supporters?

Many people will have heard of Young Carers projects, but perhaps will not realise how massive and vital a role these groups can play in families dealing with chronic illness. Young carers are defined as “children and young people who often take on practical and/or emotional caring responsibilities that would normally be expected of an adult.” Being a young carer is an isolating experience as the child may be reluctant to discuss their home life with friends at school for fear of bullying and will often feel that they are in a unique situation. imagesYoung Carers groups try to meet on a regular basis to give the youngsters a much-needed break from the day-to-day, the opportunity to meet other young carers who will truly understand the pressures and strains they are under and the chance to have fun and be a child. Depending on the location, and sadly on the funding available, these organisations may offer evening clubs, weekends away, days out and even holidays as well as friendly advice, information and counselling to both the young carer and their family. In our area, there is also a school worker who runs lunchtime clubs at some of the local secondary schools, hold awareness assemblies and will act as an advocate for the child if needed.

Frequently these youngsters don’t identify themselves in the role of a young carer and it came as no surprise to me that G didn’t as I certainly had never really thought about her in terms of being a young carer until fairly recently. Thanks to a well-placed poster, a stray comment at school and some gentle prodding from a fab EGID friend, I contacted our local Young Carers group, filled in their referral document and sent it off with my fingers tightly crossed that something helpful would come from it. With the most amazing coincidental timing, at almost the same time that I was waiting for a reply, G had spotted a poster in the Year 7 canteen, took a photo on her phone and showed it to me, asking if I thought this was something that she could find out more about. Delighted that she was interested in this support and wanting to encourage her to investigate the opportunity under her own steam too, I agreed that she should contact the teacher named and see what further information she would be given from within school. P1000101She and a close friend in a not-too-dissimilar position have since met with this teacher a couple of times and have been given more information about our local young carers group as well as a list of useful contact names and numbers.

We also had a positive response from my referral form and last week G and I met with Hannah, one of the Young Carers team. She was with us for about an hour and talked to G about all things Young Carers. Having established that G understood what was meant by the term “young carer”, Hannah then took the time to explain how G fit into that role and then they discussed at length just how G helps M and the rest of the family and how she feels about it. I stayed in the kitchen the whole time, but switched between sitting at the table with them and carrying on with preparing feeds, meds, packed lunches and dinner in order to give G the chance to open up about her feelings. I reassured her that we wanted her to be 100% honest about the emotional impact that M’s illness has on her and was pleased to hear her being just that. Nothing she said surprised me in the slightest and I found it a relief to see her open to the idea of the Young Carers groups and all they can offer. She is keen to get started as soon as possible and is just waiting for the paperwork to be processed and the invitation to drop onto the doormat Hogwarts-style!

I am fascinated and pleased to see that there is an increasing awareness worldwide of the lasting impact of chronically ill siblings on children and the need to seek ways to effectively support them as they grow up, often in the shadow of the sick child. Last year I became aware of another fantastic project, this time by Australian photographer, Alexandrena Parker and Rare Voices Australia, entitled The Forgotten Ones, which sought to highlight this aspect of the rare disease community and unsung-hero-greport…to celebrate and recognise the unspoken and often forgotten support that siblings provide to loved ones suffering.” This is just one person’s small step to make a difference to these unfailing supporters, but with the help of projects like The Forgotten Ones and Young Carers, we can all help support our sick children and their unsung heroes.

 

*The wonderful charity, Over the Wall, also provides respite camps for sick children, their siblings and their families, either all together or separately. You can find out more here.