Every parent has a list of wishes for their children.
Dreams of a lifetime of good health, happiness and contentment. Hopes that they will grow to have courage, respect and compassion for others. And a promise that children will always know how loved they are, no matter what the future holds.
But for parents of children with life-threatening illnesses, their only wish is that they could swap places with their kids and take the suffering away.
While they don’t have a blue genie in a magic lamp or a cure for those horrible illnesses, When You Wish Upon a Star do have a couple of wish fairies that bring a sprinkle of stardust and a ray of light in a period of great darkness and make some very special dreams come true.
For almost 30 years, the team at When You Wish Upon a Star has been granting wishes to thousands of children with serious illnesses around the country.
From meeting favourite characters and celebrities to visiting Santa in Lapland, the When You Wish Upon a Star team have devoted their time to helping children aged four to 17 that have been diagnosed with life threatening illnesses to enjoy happy, memorable times.
Back in the late 80s, Barbara White was working at Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre when she came across a four-year-old girl called Joanna who was battling stomach cancer. Barbara asked Joanna: if she had one wish, what would it be?
To meet Mickey Mouse was her answer.
Barbara was so touched by Joanna’s bravery and positivity that she promised to help make her wish come true in any way she could and set out fundraising to send the young girl to Walt Disney World. Sadly, Joanna passed away before the trip but her family went in her memory.
Around the same time, Barbara was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and had to give up work. But despite her own health issues, Barbara knew there would be hundreds if not thousands of poorly children like Joanna whose wishes she could help grant and so she threw herself into launching When You Wish Upon a Star from her Nottingham home in 1990.
She believed those precious childhood years shouldn’t be defined by illness, hospitals or medical intervention; they should be filled with joy, wonder and hope.
In the first year, Barbara turned three children’s dreams into a reality. Since then, the charity has grown and, together with a fantastic team, they have granted wishes for over 18,000 children as they approach their 30th anniversary in 2020.
As the iconic song goes: if your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.
Children have danced in the Nutcracker ballet, seen Tutankhamun’s treasures in Dorchester, trained like an astronaut for the day at Kennedy Space Centre and even cooked a meal for Masterchef’s Greg Wallace and John Torode.
Whatever a child’s hobbies and interests, the Wish team can try and arrange everything from football mascot days to VIP West End show visits.
A lot of children want to visit Disney – be it Paris of Florida – to meet all their favourite characters. While others dream of meeting their favourite singers like Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes and even David Essex – well, that was actually a mum’s wish.
Some ask for parties to invite all their family and friends; others prefer technology to keep in touch with schoolfriends during isolating hospital stays.
Toys and games are often the most wished for gifts, with the fairies providing everything from a trolley dash around a toy shop to a simple bubble machine. They’ve given one little girl a (fur-real) pony called Butterscotch and created a boy cave in the back garden to house one little boy’s toys.
One of the most recent wishes to come through to the team is to swim with pigs in the Bahamas.
There are no real guidelines for what wishes can be, the only real ‘rule’ being that the child cannot have already had a wish granted by other similar charities – this is to ensure as many children as possible have the chance for their dream to come true.
Parents or family members can apply on a child’s behalf and then the two wish fairies, Rachel and Sam, will arrange to visit the family home where possible to chat to the child and find out their interests.
Each child is advised to choose three wishes and the team will try and grant the first and favourite one; however, this may not always be possible for medical reasons.
While it is a child’s wish, the team try and involve the whole family where they can to provide a break from reality to everyone affected by the daily battle.
When a child is diagnosed with an illness that requires consistent medical intervention, the family finds themselves living day to day.
One parent, usually the mother, stays with their son or daughter during those long hospital stays and often has to give up work to care for their child. The other parent then works all hours on end to pay the bills on one wage. For single-parent families, this becomes even harder.
Grandparents, aunts and uncles, or extended family members help care for any other children in the family, taking them to school or cooking dinner. Older siblings often miss out on hobbies or holidays due to limited finances and some help by becoming young carers for their brother or sister.
Families can go months between sitting down for a meal together, with the small things we all take for granted falling by the wayside for many.
Along with choosing their own wish, each child also chooses when they’d like to have it. Some prefer for their wish to be granted part way through treatment to help them keep going; others wait until afterwards as something to look forward to.
The team also provide regular treat days or special days out for larger groups of children. In the past, there has been a spellbinding Harry Potter experience aboard the Belmond Northern Belle, a visit from Marvel’s favourite superheroes, and a VIP trip to CBeebies land.
One of the main events each year is where the Wish Fairies take around 100 poorly children and their families to Lapland for a day of festive fun and magical memory making.
This December, the day will begin at 5am where bleary eyed children arrive at the airport, with Santa’s elves waiting to check passengers in. While waiting to board their flight, specially chartered by the charity for their sole use, there is time for colouring and games. Once in the air aboard Santa Express, the joy continues with kids singing down the microphone or telling jokes.
As the children and their families depart at the winter wonderland, they are taken by coach to the enchanted forest which is white over with snow and trimmed up with lights. Time for snowball fights, tobogganing, and husky-drawn sleigh rides – including some specially adapted for wheelchair users – before toasting marshmallows over the fire and lots of hot chocolate while watching a spectacular firework display.
After a few hours in the sub-zero temperatures, the children, with their rosy cheeks and wide smiles, head to a hotel for a meal together with a very special guest also taking a pit stop from his pre-Christmas duties. With sleigh bells ringing in the air, Santa arrives with his reindeer and a sack full of presents for all the children.
Then it’s time to board the Santa Express to go home to bed after a truly magical day.
Sadly, this may be the last Christmas some families spend together. But despite the grief they may be feeling, parents have the gift of those cherished memories, seeing happy faces playing in the snow, which will last a lifetime.
Whether it’s the Lapland trip, the treat days or the individual wishes, the Wish team plan and organise every aspect to make sure parents have nothing to do other than simply turn up.
They check with consultants whether a child is fit enough to fly or travel and arrange medical insurance which can be costly depending on the child’s condition. For the Lapland trip, a team of paramedics, nurses and doctors are voluntarily on-hand in case of emergencies.
For holiday wishes, they have their own private accommodation for families to stay in, such as a villa in Florida, an apartment in Spain and a lodge in Cornwall.
Every wish is provided free of charge and the When You Wish Upon a Star team are always looking for extra support each year to fund even more wishes for sick children.
They can’t make life changing wishes happen without the wonderful support and donations they receive.
Whatever people want to do, be it a wing walk or a coffee morning, the fundraising team can support the public in their pledge. Any money raised will go directly into making wishes come true, such as a ten-day trip to Florida for a family of four which costs around £7,000.
To charter a plane to Lapland costs the charity £90,000 – and this year they are taking two. To help fund this, there is a fantastic festive mission asking people to do a Lap for Lapland. It could be a lap of the office, playground or sports track – every little helps. Businesses could also sponsor a seat and pledge to raise the cost of one person’s ticket which is £450.
At XPO Logistics in Barnsley, staff are doing a race to Lapland by cycling and running over 2,000 miles to mark the distance from their Grimethorpe warehouse to Santa’s workshop.
Instead of buying or receiving unwanted gifts for the adults this year, why not make a donation to make a child’s wish come true – Christmas is all about children, after all.