Tag Archives: friends

Time to stop and smell the roses

New job, end of term, fundraising plans, health challenges, summer holidays… sometimes it really is nice to be able to stop and smell the roses, especially when they’re as beautiful as this bunch of flowers currently gracing G’s windowsill. A thank you from her Stagecoach school for all her help last week at their summer school – a small acknowledgement of her efforts and one that has very much been appreciated and enjoyed by us all.

We’re all taking a little time this week to slow down and appreciate life. With a couple of days off planned for the end of the week, I’m winding down to just spending some much-longed-for family time together and am wondering if I can convince the children to give up their technology for at least some of that time too. M is spending the week planning 101 things he wants to do with G before we have our break, whilst G tries her best to ignore him and focus on some gentle revision instead. Mike and I will complete as much work as we can and anything left outstanding will quite simply have to wait until we head back to our desks on Monday morning.

I hope you too get the chance to stop, take a breather and appreciate life in its fullest this week.

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20 years of #mischiefandmagic

A lot can happen in 20 years.

In the years since our wedding in December 1999, our family has doubled in size and we’ve moved schools, houses and jobs at a rate that has to be seen to be believed. We’ve survived illness and loss within both our families and our friends, and continue to do so on a daily basis thanks to some long-term diagnoses that have oft-times caught us when we were least expecting them. Chronic illness has become a much bigger part of our lives that we could ever have imagined, but with that has also come some amazing friendships, connections and opportunities that we never even dreamed would happen and that, in many ways, I wouldn’t change for the world.

One such relationship that we have all absolutely come to value is the one with the charity, Over The Wall. They have been a phenomenal support to G and M since both first attended their camps in 2016 and are, in an almost unbelievable stroke of serendipity, also celebrating 20 years since they were first launched by UK businessman Joe Woods following in Paul Newman’s footsteps and the development of the Hole in the Wall Gang camps in Connecticut USA in the late 1980s.

So what are we doing to make this a year of note?

As far as our anniversary goes, I’m hoping that Mike and I might manage a night out somewhere special, though celebrating the week before Christmas can make that difficult as we negotiate the huge numbers of office Christmas parties that we inevitably encounter when trying to book a table anywhere without a lot of forward planning.

And, of course, it will come as no surprise that we are also working hard to raise awareness and funds to support Over The Wall’s ambitious plans to take a record-breaking 1,000 children to camp this year. Mike started the year in style with a sponsored polar dip on New Year’s Day and we’ve turned our hands to a few other things – some old, some new – to see just how much we can raise. We followed the “sparking joy” fashion and adopted a Marie Kondo approach to clearing out our wardrobes, committed to giving a regular amount each month and even stood in the entrance of our local Tesco superstore a couple of weeks ago to collect what we could and spread the word about the camps too.

We’ve taken OTW with us wherever we’ve travelled, sporting branded t-shirts, hoodies and bandanas with aplomb and almost quite literally went “over the wall” with them during our visit to Berlin.

G and M have obviously been a big part of many of our efforts, but are now launching an appeal of their own. Their yearning to do something truly spectacular has unfortunately been somewhat hampered by not yet being quite old enough to participate in the activity of their choice, but they have instead picked the next best option in their eyes and will be taking part in a sponsored indoor skydive at the end of this month.

How can you help?

Well, it goes without saying that any sponsorship you can give would be very gratefully received by G, M and OTW, especially if you can help them meet their fundraising target of £200 – scaled back somewhat from M’s original suggestion of £20,000 – by visiting their fundraising page here.

If you’re not able to donate, but live near a Tesco store in one of the following areas*, OTW is one of their Bags of Help Centenary Grants recipients until the end of August and by adding your blue token to their box, and encouraging friends, family and fellow shoppers to do the same, you will help them receive a significant grant that will be genuinely life-changing. Remember “Every Little Helps”, even if that’s by a blue token!

Finally, sharing the OTW message of #mischiefandmagic with friends and across your social media channels will not only help the charity reach even more of the estimated 50,000 children and young people living with serious health challenges across the UK, but sharing our fundraising page will hopefully bring even more cash donations pouring in to help them achieve their goals not only this year, but in the future too.

Thank you!

*OTW is currently starring in stores across: Perth & Kinross, Angus, Stirling, Fife, Clackmannanshire, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, East Lothian, Midlothian, Somerset (inc Bristol), Wiltshire and Swindon.

Happy Holidays!

We’ve made it!

We almost literally limped to the end of term, but we made it, not withstanding the challenges of mock exams, shingles and Lyme disease. Homework was completed (and handed in), sports day was competed in (and won) and the last day was enjoyed in all the glory of own clothes and an early finish to the day.

We might only be a week in, but already G and M have been busy. We’ve squeezed in a couple of films they wanted to watch, the beach has been enjoyed with G’s godfather and his family visiting from Canada and they’ve kicked off this week by volunteering at our Church’s holiday club for primary-age children during the day as well as taking part in the evening’s youth club for teens.

And there are plans for the weeks ahead: G is spending a week volunteering at their Stagecoach’s summer school, a visit to London to see the musical of their choice thanks to London theatre’s Kids Week and even some fundraising for the fantastic Over The Wall which they’ve planned themselves (more details of that to follow). We don’t have a “big” summer holiday planned having been to Berlin during May half-term, but instead have decided to enjoy our local area as well as the occasional overnight visit to somewhere a little further afield in the UK.

One thing’s for certain, it’s looking to be a busy, fantastic and very happy summer holidays and I hope yours are too!

An Enriching Experience

June always seems to be a busy month for G and M and this year has been no exception to that unwritten rule. As well as the hell that was the lead up to G’s Year 10 mock exams – the exams themselves have proved to be not quite as stressful as we all feared they might be – there’s also been the much more enjoyable enrichment week for M and G’s work experience week too. Add in Live Lounge performances at school, end of year performances with their performing arts schools, we’ve finally found ourselves at the end of June and it’s time to take a deep breath, enjoy the last few weeks of school (if that’s even possible) and look forward to the summer holidays.

Last year, M was part of the school-based activities week as he wasn’t in a position to be able to consider being away from home from a health perspective and this year was no different, although the school makes the decision that all Year 8 students remain on-site, rather than being offered residential trips. After much deliberation, he was fortunate enough to be awarded a place on his first choice activity: the photography course. M really enjoys taking photos and has captured some really stunning snaps using just his phone’s camera at home. This was an opportunity to learn much more about the craft of photography itself and he spent 4 days learning about shutter speeds, taking action shots, images through water – lots and lots and lots of water! – and using light to write and capture words. He loved every moment of the course and has already decided to start saving up his pocket money so that he can buy his own camera as soon as he practically can.

The Friday was spent on a different activity and much to our surprise, he opted for paint-balling, something that has left him battered and bruised in the past. In fact, M hasn’t been paint-balling since he was hit accidentally by an adult using a high-powered weapon in the wrong part of the course at a friend’s birthday party. Whilst he wasn’t injured particularly and bounced back very quickly, the experience rattled most of the people there as M had his feeding-tube at the time and he was sore for a few days afterwards. However, the prospect of running around with a group of his friends and their plan to gang up on some of the teachers seemed to excite him and he couldn’t wait to go on the Friday even despite the rain. It was another fun-filled day and he enjoyed it all, even if he did come home sporting a rather impressive bruise to his right thigh by the end of it.

Whilst M had a week of enriching and engaging activities, G meanwhile found herself completing her work experience week. Back at the start of the school year, we had gone through a number of possible posts for her to consider and apply to for the week, but in the end she decided to spend the time working at the surveying firm as Mike. She spent her week learning how to carry out and complete property valuations, building surveys and home-buyers reports as well as the more mundane office and administration tasks that all good work placement employers expect: photocopying and shredding! Her Friday saw her spending the day at a building site and finding out about project management and property insurance claims. G very much enjoyed her week, though her diary entry for the Wednesday perhaps sums it up best – when asked “What have you learned about work this week?“, her honest response was “That it’s exhausting!

Mental Health Awareness Week 2019: Body Image

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW19) in the UK and the focus this year is on body image – how we think and feel about our bodies. I’ve talked about mental health in relation to our family before as there is no question that the ongoing challenges of M’s ill health and the restricted diets of both children have impacted not only them, but Mike and me too. Just because I’ve not written about body image issues before doesn’t mean we haven’t faced them and I thought it was finally time to try and put my pen to paper and talk about our experiences honestly.

It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the way I look. I am not a size 10 having, as I have often said, passed through it on my way to bigger and better things. I struggled as a teen being taller and bigger than some of my friends and again as a new Mum, when some of my antenatal group bounced back to their size 8 jeans within a ridiculously quick space of time, something I was never going to achieve. The depression that has haunted me since my early teen years didn’t help with my sense of self worth and it has taken me 40 years to finally accept that I am the way I am and that that is enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have a crisis of confidence even now, but I have learned to wear clothes that flatter my shape and can truly step out with confidence when everything comes together to help me feel good about the way I’m presenting myself to the outside world.

There is no question that G is the spitting image of Mike and his side of the family, which gives her beautiful tanned skin and dark hair, although her build is very similar to mine. She has struggled at times with not being as slender as some of her friends and these days complains that she appears to have stopped growing whilst her friends are still inching past her. She is a beautiful young lady on the inside as well as out and we encourage her to find her worth in the way she behaves and reacts to the people who are around her and not her physical looks. We have all heard the criticisms of both print and social media and the airbrushed images that all too often create unrealistic expectations in our children and young people. The increasing popularity of taking selfies and then using social media filters to manipulate the image presented to the world can add to our unrealistic perceptions about the way we should look. I still remember a discussion we had with one of the paediatricians when she was little, who told us that the danger these days is that our perceptions and expectations of body shape and size are such that we fail to recognise when people are a healthy weight for their height and instead view them as overweight. G is learning to eat healthily, keep active, believe in herself and, most importantly, to not constantly compare who she is to her friends.

It is easy to believe therefore that if you’re slim you have no reason to have body image issues, but I can tell you that’s not true either. M is the complete opposite to the rest of us and has always been on the slender side. He is chatty, witty and can ooze absolute self-belief at times, and yet he has struggled with feeling too thin, too short and lacking muscles when compared to some of his friends. He refused to wear shorts during his Junior school years, even when the weather was gloriously sunny and we asked for permission for him to wear jogging trousers rather than shorts for PE – all because he hated the way his legs looked. These days he’s a little more prepared to reveal his legs, particularly when it’s too hot to be comfortable in jeans, but he frequently comments on just how much taller than him many of his classmates are.

Boys can be just as much affected by body image issues as girls can and we’re lucky that our secondary school is very aware of that fact and looks to support all of the pupils in its teaching about these matters. We are all aware that puberty is a tricky time and one that needs to be carefully navigated by all involved. At home, we look to help both G and M grow up with a positive self image and belief as well as teaching them the importance of balanced meals and regular exercise. We also encourage them to talk openly and honestly with us about how they’re feeling about various issues, not just about the way they look, and will help them find answers or solutions if they want. Our youngsters grow up sadly believing all too often that they need to be thin and conventionally beautiful to succeed in this world and I find it devastating that they do not truly understand and believe that there is so much more to achieving success than the way they look.

Birthday blessings

This weekend has been one of “those” weekends. You know, one of the ones where there’s so much to do and just not quite enough time to manage to do it all. A combination of birthday celebrations, performing arts classes, auditions and hospital appointments has left us feeling somewhat exhausted; but tonight, after a fun few hours with M, G and a group of their friends, I’m also counting our blessings.

It’s been no secret that M found last year, his first at secondary school, tough. The move into a school environment where his year group was considerably bigger than his entire junior school combined with family deaths and the inevitable challenge of his continued restricted diet left not only M, but all of us, struggling to find a positive way forward. Circumstances last year meant that we didn’t really do much to celebrate his 12th birthday, so I was determined to kick off his teen years in whatever fashion he wanted.

The celebrations started with an M-friendly pear and ginger cake with caramel buttercream icing on Friday evening to accompany his presents, which included the bass guitar and amp that he’s been yearning after for a few months. He had been slightly frustrated with Mike’s refusal to take him to look at guitars last weekend and was only marginally mollified by the promise to get up early this Saturday morning to visit our local guitar shop and examine exactly what was on offer. As you can imagine, his excitement in finding the guitar and its own mini amp waiting for him when he got home from Stagecoach was wonderful to see and we’ve been serenaded with renditions of both “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Seven Nation Army” since late Friday night! I’m just glad the bass guitar lessons he’s been having at school appear to be paying off already and delighted to see him so wiling to practise in every spare moment.

However, the culmination of M’s birthday weekend came yesterday afternoon as we spent the late afternoon and early evening with a group of his and G’s friends. M had chosen a group of old friends and new, some from school, others that he’s grown up with and the best bit was seeing just how well these different strands of his life hit it off and enjoyed the few hours together. After lots of chat, M had decided he wanted to try his hand at an escape room and we booked 2 rooms at one of our local escape rooms sites. We amicably split into 2 teams, each with an adult and a mix of the older and younger children and determined to compete against the clock, rather than each other to escape our locked rooms.

I was impressed with how well they all worked together and certainly those on my team managed the frustration of solving some of the clues well, with only one of M’s friends needing some redirection and reminders to focus from time to time. We were lucky to escape with just 2 minutes to spare and although Mike and M’s team were not quite so successful – they had found all 4 keys, but failed to open the door in time – everyone enjoyed themselves and were ready to move on for a dinner to suit all dietary needs that were present.

The chatter, camaraderie and chuckles around the table were wonderful to experience and all the children were a delight to spend time with as they enjoyed their food and just spending time together. It was a wonderful way to celebrate M’s 13th birthday and I really have counted my blessings tonight that M has finally found his way out from the darkness of last year with the help of some amazing friends, who accept him for who he is and don’t see his health challenges as a barrier to their friendship with him. A perfect celebration with both new friends and old; and a combination of friendships that I hope will keep going for many years to come.

#FFFA19

It seems almost impossible that a year has passed since my last journey to London for a judging stint at the FreeFrom Food Awards (#FFFA19), and yet, here I am, on the train heading home after another great day of finding some fab free from foods. I feel so privileged to be a part of the judging team and it really is no exaggeration to say that it is easily one of the highlights of my year. Not only do I get to taste and discover some fantastic new products to the market, obviously always feeling very hopeful that I might even find some that are M-friendly as well as delicious, but I have made some lovely friends along the way and the judging sessions are always the best opportunity to do some much-needed catching up over food and a cup of tea.

My day started with “Foods to Go”, which Mike and I judged on the one occasion I let him join me for the experience and which nicely balanced out the sweetness that I knew the afternoon would be filled with. You never quite know what you’re going to get in this category and this year was no different as the first few mouthfuls included dried fruit snacks, soup, noodles, sandwiches and sweet rice cakes! It was a relatively small category for us to make our way through thing – just 16 items to try – which is always a good thing and I was one of the lucky few able to try everything being neither gluten-free or vegetarian.

My highlights of this session were:

Thai Carrot & Sweet Potato Soup: This was a surprise hit for me. I am not usually a big fan of carrot soup as I find it inevitably sweet, but the delicate balance of the Thai spices alongside the vegetables gave every mouthful a tantalising delicious and fragrant flavour. I haven’t spotted this soup on the supermarket shelf before – though to be perfectly honest, I’d probably have passed it by anyway – but I will definitely be looking out for it in the future.

Made Without Wheat Chicken & Bacon Sandwich: Apologies for my failure to get a photo of this, but this was a delicious, well-filled chicken and bacon mayo sandwich, which was not only gluten-free, but also dairy-free and I know will be a definite winner with G. I was impressed by the quantity of the filling as well as the flavour and texture of the bread – you really wouldn’t be able to tell it was gluten-free if you didn’t know. Sandwiches can be one of the hardest things to find when we’re out and about, so this will no doubt become a firm favourite in our family.

Caramel Rice Cakes: These weren’t necessarily the biggest hit in the room due to their to-be-expected sweetness, but I fell in love with them as they’re pretty much safe for M and will give him a great sweet treat that can be added occasionally added to his lunch-box.

This year saw my return to one of my favourite categories, that of Tea-time treats, not least because it was there in 2016 I first discovered the incredible Borough 22, who perfected the most indescribably delicious doughnuts that are safe for both children and are still a regular favourite in our household. I had gone with strict instructions from M to see if I could find anything that might be safe for him, and with a few more ingredients to play with I was hopeful that I might just have some luck. The afternoon session did not disappoint and with 5 different chocolate cakes to taste amongst the 29 products, it was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

My highlights?:

Gluten-, dairy- and nut-free Occasion cake: First of all, we were completely blown away by the appearance of this incredible wedding cake which had been carefully driven to the FFFA HQ for our enjoyment; and then the taste simply took my breath away. Amazing sponge, creamy buttercream without being too sickly sweet and enough sharpness in the jam to cut through the sweetness – utter perfection and one I would definitely recommend.

Tea-cakes: Nothing beats a toasted tea-cake and a cup of tea and it was wonderful to find this vegan and gluten-free alternative for this Sunday tea favourite. Another one of those “I don’t think you’d know it’s free from” treats we got to try and one I’m definitely going to be trying out with G.

Raw Mince Pie: Now, this will be a surprising highlight to just about anyone who knows me as they know that I absolutely hate most things with dried fruit – fruit cake, Christmas pudding or mince pies are not anything I would willingly put near my mouth on your average day. But, this was not your average day and I absolutely had to try a small bit for the sake of fair judging. It was surprisingly tasty and whilst I’ll confess that I wouldn’t necessarily rush out to buy these for myself, I would highly recommend them to anyone looking for an allergy-friendly, vegan Christmas treat.

My thanks go to Michelle, Cressida and Sue for their hospitality today and to all those producers who keep working hard to produce these delicious free from foods that give those living with food allergies, just like G and M, the opportunity to eat the same things as the friends and family safely. Keep an eye out for the shortlist in February and final winners, who will be announced on March 20th.

Battle of the Birthday cakes

December is always a busy month for our family, what with birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas to celebrate and squeeze in alongside the end of term and all the added demands that that almost always inevitably brings. As well as the last-minute rush to make sure cards have been written (and sent) and that presents have been bought (and wrapped), I also have to make sure I have time to bake the perfect cake to help us celebrate G’s birthday in style.

Over the years I have tried my hand at all sorts of cakes and I love spending the time to let my creative side really come out, though Mike might disagree as some of my more complicated masterpieces have kept us up into the early hours as I strive to get every detail just right. Last year I attempted a gluten- and dairy-free red velvet cake for G, which tasted great, but didn’t look as appealing as I’d have liked and so this year I was determined to create her a special treat that looked and tasted the part. G is a definite chocolate lover, something that can be a little tricky when you’re dairy-free, but there are lots of great dairy-free options available and I was determined to use a mix of them to make G a cake that the whole family, including M, could enjoy.

The obvious starting point was the beautiful chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes that I had perfected for Mike’s birthday and which I knew I could turn into a fantastic 2 layer cake. I wanted to create a really sumptuous filling and to my delight discovered this salted caramel flavoured icing mix as I wandered around our local supermarket. Mixed with our regular dairy-free spread, this made the perfect buttercream filling and topping for G’s cake. I finished it off with handfuls of Freedom mallows, shavings of Moo-free chocolate and sprinkles of Sainsbury’s Free From White chocolate chips. The final cake was a huge success: gooey, delicious and everything my chocolate-lover could have wanted for her 15th birthday.

Once G’s birthday celebrations finally came to an end, I was then on to my next birthday cake project, which was to bake a cake for my Aunt for her birthday on December 23. This year was her first celebrating without my Uncle, who sadly passed away earlier in 2018 and the plan was for a family gathering at my Mum’s house to mark the day. Mum was keen for me to bake some more of the chocolate cake that I had made for G’s birthday, but I wanted to do something a little different, especially with Christmas right around the corner, and instead settled on one of M’s firm favourites, banana bread.

When it came to making the cake, G was a huge help and offered to bake a dozen cupcakes, whilst I decided how to decorate them. She did a great job and by the time I’d found the perfect design and all the necessary ingredients, there were 12 wonderful looking cupcakes waiting and ready to go. I took inspiration from the front cover of a fantastic cupcakes cookery book that I’ve used before and gave a nod to my Welsh heritage with a plateful of sheep cupcakes. Safe buttercream icing, a small supply of Freedom mallows, safe cocoa powder and a little fondant icing was all that was needed to create these fun birthday treats,which were not only enjoyed on the 23rd, but saw G and M through Christmas too.