Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The wishes of children with cancer

The Barretstown dreamcatcher is my favourite symbol for the Co. Kildare camp. The centrepiece of the Arts and Crafts room there, the campers, who all suffer from cancer or other blood related illnesses, write their wishes down, tie them into the dreamcatcher and there they stay, unread, untouched; secret wishes from children who have been touched by illness.

"Origami birds, shiny little boxes tied up with coloured string, feather coated parcels, all kinds of creations decorated with sequins and ribbons and crepe paper...

For a child with cancer, every wish counts."

Just launched is the new Barretstown Wishes campaign that invites people to not only think about the children from Ireland, the UK and 21 European countries who visit Barretstown, but to create their own wishes to send to Barretstown to join the wishes of other supporters in what they call the magic environment of the camp.

When I first visited Barretstown in 2004, it was the dreamcatcher above anything else in the amazing place that caught my emotions on the tour. Wishes from children that no one will ever read or know if they came true.

While, thankfully, I've never had to deal with the problem of having a child or sibling suffer from any major illness, it was easy for me to wonder what children had chosen to share in felt-tip marker and glitter, having experienced a new sense of freedom in the previous ten days. It was the idea of these wishes that made me volunteer the first time and kept me coming back for more.

All photos are taken from and are courtesy of Maxwells.

Barretstown, part of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall camps is set on 500 acres of Co. Kildare countryside - close enough to Naas - and welcomes children aged 7 to 17 to take part in their program of therapeutic recreation.

What happens there is nothing short of wonderful every year as children realise that they're not just an ill child, but a child, who like all the other children there have an illness. That's when the important bit, the serious fun starts.
"The children who come to Barretstown have often spent a long time in hospital enduring debilitating treatment. In the process they miss out on so much that most children take for granted. Simple things like playing in the local basketball team, or sleepovers at a best friend's house.

But Barretstown changes all that. Throughout the summer our camp has been ringing with the laughter of these children. They're here to rebuild their self-esteem and to get the reassurance that they can be happy and have fun. In turn, they rediscover things about themselves to help them cope with life outside Barretstown."
I've always been surprised that Barretstown has to go through so much to raise its funds every year. They receive 3% funding from the government meaning 97% comes from the public year on year. They have very generous fundraisers, volunteers and supporters but like every charity have to run campaigns to beg for donations to help make it happen. It's one of those strange dichotomies where to really understand what you're donating to, you almost have to experience it for yourself.

It's impossible for me to blog about what happens there without breaking into a smile as I remember certain children, their inspiring attitudes, discoveries and sense of adventure. There too are the volunteers I've made friends with, kept in touch with and continue to and mostly the experiences I went through that opened my own eyes to certain truths about others and myself. Barretstown taught me a lot about who I am and who I can be.

Barretstown offers safe challenges to the campers and the volunteers - or 'Caras' (gaelic for friend) - from hanging upside down and crossing a swamp to petting a horse for the first time to getting up on stage and performing to changing your perception of yourself and your ideas about illness. I've learned pity isn't as useful as a listening ear, sharing tears isn't as useful as sharing a hug and that above all a sick child is still a child, and so wants to have fun.

The Barretstown Wishes website offers some ideas of the wishes children might make. "To make new friends." "To be able to catch a fish in the Barretstown lake." "To have their hair grow back after chemotherapy." It's impossible to know, save that one of the only times I've ever seen tears there is when the camp sessions are over and the children have to go home. There and then the wishes tend to be that the children can come back.

Of course, if therapeutic recreation has had its desired effect - if the children have regained confidence in themselves to help them fight their illness, they won't come back as campers - often though they return as volunteers to help others, to share smiles, to have fun.

What would your wish be? Don't tell me, but head over to the Barretstown wishes site where you can download a wish keeper, find out more or help Barretstown by donating. They also have a wish list to ask companies for help other than just cash. You'd be making a real difference and maybe even helping some wishes come true.

Well done to for this campaign which I hope goes really well. You can find out more on the Barretstown website, including some beautiful film footage of the place. You'll find all information on volunteering here also. It may be worth the click :-)


  1. It sounds like a wonderful place of peace, care and great love

  2. the treatment is often just as debilitating as the disease they are trying to cure. This place sounds amazing.

  3. "I've always been surprised that Barretstown has to go through so much to raise its funds every year"

    Honestly, until I met you I had barely heard of Barretstown and I think once you know about something it's hard to realise that not everyone does. I don't think it is half as well known as you think it is, it needs to get it's name out there, to raise it's profile and people's awareness of it and the good it does. That's just my 2 cents on it anyway :)

  4. It sounds like a great place and is a super way for kids to get back on their feet after their illness has taken its toll on them and to have real fun.

    Am going to make enquiries about volunteering as I feel it would be a wonderful and very rewarding way of helping others.

  5. @Grannymar - thanks for the comment. A wonderful place it certainly is. Peace though? Not with the noise these kids make in the theatre and the dining room. A place of mischief and laughter certainly!

    @Donna m - it sure is. The treatment can take such a lot out of someone, but Barretstown helps to put a bit of that back. Every little helps!

    @Niamh - You're probably right, but there's only so much that they are able to do. That's why I try to help when and where I can. I think if they cultivated an appreciation of the many ambassadors out there in an effort to spread the word, it would be a good start.

    @Stella - You should love it. I certainly did. "Reach" by S Club 7 has taken on a whole new meaning since being there! The food's great, the people lovely and the grounds are gorgeous!