Our special journey with families to the Lake District

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I have spent the last thirteen years working closely with children and young people with cancer and their families who go through the toughest of ordeals. I can honestly say that I  truly treasure opportunities to offer some light in these darkest of times and make them smile.  So, I want to take this time to share the story of an extraordinary trip the wonderful Spread a Smile team and I recently took with some very special people and saw smiles that we will never forget…

Last Wednesday, after much checking and double checking of lists and frantic phone calls coordinating last-minute details, our team of seven and I set off on a six-hour journey up to the Lake District with three families for our very first residential trip. And what better place to host this inaugural event than at Flynne’s Barn, located right in the heart of the mountains.

Greeting us on arrival were our hosts Katherine, Robin, and their son Harry, who set up Flynne’s Barn after their 17-year-old daughter sadly died of cancer in 2016. Named in her memory, Flynne’s Barn is a place where young people living with cancer can come together to find peace and forge friendships in the beautiful Lake District surroundings. Flynne’s love of nature and fearless positivity in making meaningful connections with other young people with cancer is a mission that Katherine and Robin have put right into the soul of the place. We were so thankful to them for hosting us and allowing us to bring the families of our three young patients – Lily, Joy, and Kayla – who had recently finished cancer treatment.

When Lily, Joy, and Kayla arrived with their siblings and parents, there was lots of excitement at the prospect of spending four days exploring the surroundings.

And what an adventurous four days it was.

Being in the heart of the countryside meant absolutely no phone signal, which was a blessing for us all to have a digital detox and for everyone to get out in nature.

Lily, Joy, Kayla, and their eight siblings joined in with forest school activities where they made beautiful artwork using trees, grass and flowers, as well as magic wands and potions, and jewellery out of sticks. They met search and rescue dogs, learned to play many new games, explored the area on beautiful nature walks, and even learned how to make fire, despite the pouring rain! One of the highlights were the evening campfires, where we roasted marshmallows and had many a singalong, which could likely be heard across the entire Lake District. It goes without saying that it was heart-warming to see all the children play together, get stuck into group games and art projects, and take no-screen time in their stride. As soon as they stepped into the tranquillity of Flynne’s Barn, it was like they could leave cancer behind and just be children, which was truly wonderful to see.

For parents, life post-cancer treatment can often be the hardest part, as they try to readjust to a new ‘normal’ and are often hit with the realisation and emotions of what their children and family have been through. Since these three families also experienced treatment throughout the pandemic, they had not had the opportunity to meet other families when their child was in hospital, meaning this experience was even more important. Whilst the children were energised by the surroundings and activities, the parents were able to spend time together, bonding over shared experiences and supporting each other, as well as playing games and doing group puzzles. Everyone, both the adults and children, were also able to find relaxation and restoration in aromatherapy and massages provided by our caring therapist Priya.

This would not have been possible without Katherine and Robin and the beautiful space they have created. I have known Katherine and Robin for a long time, and so this means a lot to me personally that Spread a Smile are able to partner and support the vital restorative and healing work Flynne’s Barn does for young people with cancer. That we can work together so that parents can see their children smile and everyone can take a break from cancer for a short while is something that I am beyond thankful that we can do for families.

On our new partnership and our lovely visit, Katherine and Robin said:

‘After hosting the Spread a Smile team with a group of three amazing families at Flynne’s Barn this summer we are delighted to be building our partnership. The welcoming and peaceful space of the barn, the restorative effects of nature together with the enthusiasm, talent and empathic skills of the Spread a Smile team created a winning combination. It was brilliant to see all family members across the generations visibly relax into their residential stay, to connect with each other and build friendships. Their time at Flynne’s Barn, being supported and entertained by such a wonderful team of professionals, enabled the children and their parents to leave behind the stresses of hospital stays, invasive treatments and separation from family members.

This first collaboration between our two charities is just the beginning. It’s exciting to think of the potential our partnership has for supporting families in a truly holistic way. Everyone came away enriched by the strength of the connections and new friendships made.

The vision we had for Flynne’s Barn is being realised. Our daughter Flynne loved the freedom that came with being in wild places and simply to romp in nature. The setting of the barn and its surroundings provide this. We offer a range of immersive outdoor and creative experiences that encourage connections, chats and camaraderie. Flynne loved to express how she was feeling through writing, music and artwork. We hope that offering the possibility to explore their creativity will help our young visitors to express emotions and support each other along a challenging road.’

Spread a Smile will be hosting our second residential trip next year, and we already cannot wait to visit Flynne’s Barn again.

Thank you to the Spread a Smile team, the families who came with us on the journey, Katherine, Robin, and most importantly, to Flynne.