Tag Archives: SeriousFun Children’s Network

A Night of SeriousFun

It’s no secret that I absolutely love listening to our local radio station. It’s a great opportunity to hear about local people and stories as well as the national and international news. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to hear a friend or acquaintance being interviewed and I’ve even been on the radio 4 times speaking about M, G and the impact that his EGID diagnosis and restricted diet have had on our family. One of my favourite times to listen is in the morning, when the regular presenter hosts his phone-in on a wide variety of subjects from the sublime to the ridiculous and it was this morning’s topic that triggered my thoughts for today.

Today is World Children’s Day, a day to focus on children and more specifically, according to the UN, To recommit to putting children first. For every child, every right: the right to be a child, the right to play and the right to be safe.”

And this made me think.

It brought to mind an event that Mike and I attended in London last week, the annual gala dinner for the SeriousFun Network, the global family of camps for children with serious health challenges, their siblings and families. We were there to support Over The Wall, the charity that runs the incredible UK-based camps that both G and M have been fortunate to attend over the last few years. Those camps work hard to help those children who go to feel “normal”, often for the first time in their lives and to realise that they are not as isolated in their experiences as they so often can feel, whether as the child living with the chronic illness or as their sibling.

I’ve spoken so many times about the impact that OTW has had on both G and M since the first time they went and those effects are long-lasting. Friendships have grown with those they’ve met at camp and for G in particular, those same people have become her tribe. Time and distance has made no difference to those connections they’ve built and each camp sees them re-establishing their friendships from where they left off in years before.

The gala dinner was a great opportunity to celebrate the work that the SeriousFun Network camps do across the world. Much to Mike’s delight we were seated, purely by chance, with a group of Canadians connected to OTW through their corporate giving and they managed to spend half the evening talking all things ice hockey with great enthusiasm. It is thanks to individuals, groups and companies like these that OTW have managed to increase the number of campers they take each year and, having broken their target of 1,000 campers this year, have now got ambitions to reach 1,200 children in 2020. We were entertained by a variety of great acts including 2019 Britain’s Got Talent winners, Twist and Pulse, singers and musicians Damien Rice, Charlie Siem and Diane Birch and comedian Steve Coogan as well as a few of the SeriousFun campers who have performed at Stage Night at their respective camps.

It was a lovely evening, spent with people who all have the same goal to support and bring a touch of the usual to the lives of children who are anything but. We feel privileged that since 2016 our children have benefitted so much from the extraordinary efforts of the surprisingly small handful of staff members and the huge army of volunteers working for Over The Wall. In a reality where M’s health challenges have been an unwelcome, yet prevalent feature, it can never be underestimated just how much of a difference OTW has made to both G and M, and Mike and I are already planning to join the party again next year.

This truly is an organisation that has committed to putting children first and focuses on that right of each child to be a child, no matter what else life has thrown at them.

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.

 

And the money kept rolling in…

Every year when National Eosinophil Awareness Week rolls around, we start thinking about how we’re going to raise more awareness about EGID, particularly in the public eye. During that first year, our focus was all about our awareness as a family and understanding more about how his diagnosis with this rare condition was impacting on M’s everyday life. As time has passed, we’ve looked for different ways to spread the word, reaching out into the wider community and have found that our efforts have naturally evolved to encompass an element of fundraising as well. Whilst the focus of NEAW is rightly about otwmaking sure more people know about this condition and what it means to be living with it, and donations of time are as valuable, if not more so than those of money, we know that any money we can raise will make a difference to the charities we choose to support.

This year we wanted to show our appreciation for the amazing work done by Over The Wall in running camps for children with serious health challenges, their siblings and their families. The truly fantastic week away that G enjoyed at Easter made an incredible difference to her, perhaps even more than we realised at the time. During a recent conversation with G and M about the Allergy UK Hero awards, we got to discussing the reasons why we might nominate each other for an award. To my surprise G stated that my efforts at finding out about and then sorting out her week away at camp was the best example of how I had made a significant difference to her life as an allergy-sufferer and sibling to a chronically ill child. That comment, for me, sums up just how significant the opportunity to have time away from the stresses and strains of life at home with M and to just be a child really was to her.

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During May, I started to document how our fundraising efforts were going and the different opportunities I had found to raise even more for our chosen charity. We had fantastic support from M’s school, who helped him raise an incredible £81 for OTW and through stalls at local community events and generous friends and family members, we raised another £172. Even better, we still have two fundraising plans in the pipeline, both of which came as something of a surprise to me, albeit a wonderful one. The first came when we were part-way through NEAW16, when I received an unexpected phone-call from the Head of Year 7 at G’s secondary school. Thanks to the continued support from our local press and a well-timed article in the local paper, she had a proposition that overwhelmed me and almost rendered me speechless. Year 7 had an enrichment week coming up after May half-term and, as a lead-in to their week of activities, the year group would be having a non-uniform day on the previous Friday. Her suggestion was that the school would use the day to help us raise awareness of EGID and that the money collected on the day itself would be donated to OTW. indexThe reasoning behind this plan was simple and easy to understand: G and M. They wanted to show support to G as one of their own and, knowing how much she had benefitted from her week away and recognising her commitment to supporting M during NEAW, believed that this was the perfect opportunity to do it.

I was more than happy to agree to this proposal and G was soon on board too. She was asked to write a small piece about EGID, NEAW and OTW that would be shared during tutor time on the Friday morning and each tutor was asked to show their group the short film G and M had created for the week. A well-researched, well-written and fully comprehensive letter was sent out by the school to all families explaining EGID and the charity that the money given on the day would be going to.

This week a cheque was presented to G during the weekly Year 7 assembly for an amazing £280, or thereabouts. The Year 7 Head told me that there were several donations made that exceeded the suggested £1 because the funds are going to a charity that have already helped G and M – something I can’t thank my fellow parents for enough. This money will make a difference to Over The Wall and it’s great to feel that we’re giving a little back. It means that so far we’ve raised an astonishing £530, or thereabouts, which covers half the cost for a child to attend the OTW sibling camp. I don’t know what our final fundraising total for this year will be as there is still one event left to go in August, but I’m glad that we have been able to make such a success of our efforts so far.otw

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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