Lending a helping hand
In her own words, volunteer and former camper Aoife O’Brien describes the benefits of Barretstown and the incredible work they do
“Barretstown has been a huge part of my life for the past 16 years and has played a vital role in my recovery from childhood cancer. In August 2000, I was given the devastating news that I had a malignant cancer of the blood known as acute myeloid leukaemia and spent six months in Crumlin Hospital, undergoing chemotherapy. While there, I was exposed to things that no seven-year-old child should ever have to go through. I went into remission in January 2001 and as a family we tried to step back into normal life; my parents threw a party to celebrate the end of my treatment and they also thought a trip to Disneyland was in order.
“While I was in hospital we heard about Barretstown through my oncologist Dr Breatnach, the staff and other families, but my parents were very hesitant about going there; my hair was beginning to grow back and I was starting to become well in myself again. They were afraid the camp would reawaken those memories of being sick. Nevertheless, we decided to go and haven’t looked back since. I went there very worried and clingy but came back a different child and my mum and dad saw the daughter they had before I got sick. It was just happy, smiling faces all of the time. We experienced the fun the camp is famous for and laughed in a way we hadn’t done for almost nine months. I met children who were in a similar situation to me, my parents met other families who were on the same road and my little sister Gráinne saw that she wasn’t the only sibling that this was happening to. It was really comforting for the whole family and we cried leaving our first camp, knowing we had witnessed something wonderful.”
“Not long after our first visit to camp I relapsed and my cancer came back, but Barretstown had prepared us for whatever life was going to throw at us. The worries of a regular child are things like what you might wear to a party or how you are getting on in swimming lessons, but when you’re a child who has cancer, your worries are very different. You worry about lumbar punctures, being alone in a scary radiotherapy treatment room and you worry that the doctors might not be able to cure your cancer. You come to realise that your tomorrows are not guaranteed, which is terribly sad.
“I underwent more chemotherapy and my only chance of survival was a bone marrow transplant. I was lucky that my younger sister Gráinne, who was just five at the time, was a perfect match. Thanks to her bravery I had my bone marrow transplant on August 30, 2001. For the next year I couldn’t be in public places because my immune system was low. However, I knew Barretstown was the one place I could go and eight months later when we attended our second family camp, the magic continued to grow.
“In 2009 and 2010 I returned as part of the camper leader programme - learning techniques like leadership and communication skills – and in 2012 I decided to apply to volunteer at camp. I have continued to volunteer a few times a year, working there full-time during the summer sessions in 2014.
“It’s hard to describe what it is like as a place unless you’ve been there yourself, either as a sick child or a family or a volunteer. Some people say Disneyland is the most magical place on earth but for me Barretstown is. It’s the people there who make that magic and despite there being so many kids with lots of illnesses, there is no sadness. It’s the complete opposite of what you would expect and such a rewarding experience. Seeing happy kids with happy faces, you forget everything else.
“It feels like everything has come circle for me; I’m 24 years old now and I want to repay Barretstown for everything they gave to me and my family. If you volunteer once, you will want to go back again and again. I have made so many lifelong friends at camp, not only from Ireland but all over the world.
“Cancer and other serious illnesses take away that youthful innocence which all kids deserve. Barretstown’s therapeutic Recreation programme helps to restore the childhoods of thousands of children each year and it would not be possible without our incredible volunteers, requiring over 1,400 people each year to make this happen.
“There is an ancient Sanskrit proverb by Kālidāsa which I feel captures the essence of Barretstown and shows what exactly what the camp represents, ‘Today well lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.’”