Thomas the Therapy Dog

Meet Thomas the Therapy Dog

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Meet Thomas, one of our Therapy Dogs and his owner, Spread a Smile Visit Manager Olivia Leich.

Thomas is an 8-year-old miniature Australian Labradoodle – a breed known to be wonderfully calm companions. We spoke to Olivia about Thomas, how he became a Therapy Dog and the important role he plays during their hospital visits.

“Thomas is such a lovely dog – peaceful, calm and a real comfort. When a colleague suggested that Thomas might make a brilliant Therapy Dog for Spread a Smile, I thought it would be perfect for him.

Olivia and Thomas

He had an interview with a ‘Pets As Therapy’ Dog Assessor to check his suitability – things such as whether he jumped up at people, barked, was friendly and calm around children and how he reacted to sudden movements and loud noises. Needless to say he passed with flying colours and since February this year, he’s been joining me for three shifts a week visiting hospitals.

Thomas’ role is to bring happiness, spread smiles and distract away from the hardships of life in hospital. He is a natural, immediately putting people at ease. From the moment I clip on his Spread a Smile bandana, he is so excited to get going, waiting by the door for us to leave.

As soon as we enter the hospital Thomas takes his role very seriously and really enjoys visiting the children on the wards. Everyone has the opportunity to open his treat box and give him a treat, but first they have to ask him for a high five and a fist pump before he is rewarded. He never fails and always takes the treat as if it’s the first one he’s ever had!

Thomas is very caring and proud of what he does. He can sense if a child is really unwell and bed bound and needs him to be calm and still. He will let me gently place him on the bed close to them, where he will lie calmly so that the child can stroke him or brush his fur.

During a typical week, Thomas might meet between 10 – 30 patients across various paediatric wards ranging from intensive care to rehabilitation clinics, outpatients, A&E and long term stay wards.

Quite simply, Thomas is an integral part of the team, bringing another level of joy and this joy is felt not just by the patients but also by their families and staff on the wards. I couldn’t imagine doing my job without him. Seeing the happiness he brings to the wards is incredible. He brings a sense of calm, fun and love which is immeasurable.”

Play in Hospital Week - King's College Hospital

A record-breaking Play in Hospital Week

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Play in Hospital Week (PIHW) is a special week which aims to raise awareness of the benefits of play in the treatment of poorly children, this year with a theme of ‘Play for resilience and good mental health’.

Spread a Smile celebrated PIHW in style setting ourselves the target of doing more than ever before in one week. And what a record-breaking week it was!

  • We carried out a record number of visits – a whopping 17 in total to 14 hospitals;
  • We visited 3 new hospitals: Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Newham University Hospital and Princess Alexandra Hospital; and
  • We spread smiles to over 400 children and young people, helping to make their time in hospital a little bit easier.

Play is an essential part of childhood and is at the very heart of mental, social and emotional growth and well-being. It is important that play continues to be part of a child’s life, even when they are admitted to hospital – a time when they are at their most vulnerable.

Spread a Smile Entertainers and staff work closely with and support Play Specialists and Play Workers in 21 Hospitals and 2 Hospices across the UK, providing a wide variety of entertainment and play activities for seriously and terminally ill children and young people. Our aim is to help distract, relieve fear and stress and create a safe, welcoming environment during treatment.

Our work can make a huge difference: “You have helped our daughter on her hardest days not only with her medical issues but with her mental issues too. I feel as a family we can never repay you all enough for your kindness you show to her.”

We are so proud of our achievements for PIHW 2022 and would like to say a huge thank you to our Spread a Smile Entertainers, the hospital play teams and all of the companies that have helped make it so special.

Comedy Night with Suzi Ruffell

Comedy Night with Suzi Ruffell

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We are delighted to announce that on Monday 19th December, our Ambassador and Comedian Suzi Ruffell will be hosting a second annual Spread a Smile Comedy Night at The Comedy Store, London, sponsored by our friends at Canary Wharf Contractors.

Following on from the success of last year’s inaugural event, Suzi has curated another fantastic evening of stand up comedy, featuring a brilliant line up of famously funny faces, including Alan Carr, Ed Gamble, Rosie Jones, Jen Brister, Jenny Bede and Dinesh Nathan.

Suzi first discovered Spread a Smile when a friend’s child, Trixie, was in hospital and she was able to see first-hand what a difference our visits and entertainers made during Trixie’s stay. Since then, Suzi has supported the charity generously, donating her winnings from TV appearances on The Tipping Point and The Weakest Link, and organising and hosting the first comedy fundraiser in aid of Spread of Smile in December last year.

We are extremely grateful to our sponsors Canary Wharf Contractors for supporting the event:

“We’re so proud to come on board as a sponsor for Spread a Smile’s Comedy Night again this year. It’s set to be a great evening and we’re pleased to be able to support it and the brilliant work the charity does spreading smiles to seriously ill children.” Alec Vallentine, Managing Director – Construction at Canary Wharf Group.

Tickets are on sale now for £23 each, with all proceeds from the event supporting our work spreading laughter and smiles to seriously ill children in hospital wards across the UK.

Event details: Monday 19th December at The Comedy Store, 1a Oxendon Street, London, SW1Y 4EE

Bar and Diner open from 7pm, event starts at 8pm. Strictly over 18’s.

Thank you to Suzi and all of our fantastic comedians for generously giving up their time and sharing their talents with us. And to The Comedy Store for their ongoing support.

Afternoon Tea at Riding House Cafe

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We were thrilled to be able to bring 11 young people and their families to the Riding House Café in Bloomsbury recently for a gorgeous afternoon tea!

We were joined by some of our amazing entertainers who many of the children would have recognised from visits in hospital. Magicians Nick and Sacha put on a great show, while Judge the Poet performed his spontaneous poetry and Marina who did arm and face painting.

The day was a chance for the group to spend time with others their age going through similar experiences as them. Having this shared connection can be vital for young people, to feel that they aren’t alone in their experiences. Many of the patients we support are required to spend extended periods of time in isolation, which means they are unable to socialise with other children their age or attend school full time.

Being able to enjoy time out of a hospital environment with their family is also a rarity and can be a huge relief, as they may not otherwise be able to. The families we support often say that the events we do have as much of an impact on the parents and siblings as the child in hospital themselves. We’re privileged to be able to provide these experiences for so many, alongside our work in hospitals.

Riding House Cafe put on an incredible selection of both savoury and sweet treats! The mac & cheese was a real favourite, while the donuts, red velvet cake, and pancakes made a great spread.

We began our partnership with Riding House Cafés last year, and have since been fortunate enough to bring a number of the families we support to their locations across London. We can’t thank them enough for all their support in hosting these days and putting on an amazing selection of food. They also continue to donate to us regularly through 25p added on to each customer’s bill.

Our 2022 Golf Day at Brocket Hall

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The Spread a Smile Golf Day has become a flagship event in our annual calendar. This year, we were joined by 160 golfers across two days at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire.

The picturesque course with its beautiful fairways and wide lakes was the perfect setting and most importantly, the weather was mostly clear on both days.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Spread a Smile golf day without our incredible entertainers! We brought some of our magicians on to the course to wow the players in between holes which proved very popular and a good way for people to take their mind off of any bad golf. The Spread a Smile team were also on hand with donuts around the course to keep people energised.

We were also lucky enough to share a special video with the attendees, of Abi, who’s child Arianna we support in hospital. Arianna is known in her family as ‘Wonder Woman’, and has been so brave throughout her extensive treatment and hospital stays. We supported Arianna through cancer treatment when she was required to be in isolation for four weeks, without being able to see her family. The video helped to bring to life the work that we do, and show to the golfers why fundraising days like this are so important.

Our main sponsor for the day were Canary Wharf Contractors, who we can’t thank enough for their support.

We’d also like to thank our amazing tee sponsors who lent their names to each hole. These were, Engage FS, Opticore IT, CAE Technology, Franchi, Melburg, HW Fisher, Broadcast Revolution, Enra Specialist Finance, CMS Distribution and BH2.

We’d also like to thank these organisations who were generous enough to donate products and refreshments for the day including Parks London, Karma Drinks, Gold Key Media, SipSmith Gin, Delishious and Slingsby Gin.

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.

Our incredible Summer Party!

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We held our first ever Summer Party on Wednesday 3 August, which proved to be our biggest and best event ever and we’re thankful to everyone who made it such a success. Seeing so many familiar faces was wonderful, especially outside of a hospital environment, in sunny Coram’s Fields in London.

In total, we had over 613 guests at the party: 330 patients and their siblings, 261 family members and carers plus 22 play specialists.

For many, our summer party was a rare opportunity to get off the wards to spend time having fun with their family. So many of the children we support require constant care, or are required to isolate in their rooms. Giving them an opportunity to celebrate and spend quality time with their family makes a huge difference in their lives and allows them to experience some normality for a day. Opportunities like our party are few and far between for the families we support.

The children who came had no shortage of things to do, as we had stations for face painting, teddy bear t-shirt decorating, sensory play, aromatherapy for parents, arts and crafts, magic, animals and so much more! The kids all got stuck in and were able to try everything, and it was amazing to see them moving from table to table to try all the activities. One particular favourite was where they could design clothes for the hundreds of soft toy pandas provided by Ikea or shoot the Nerf guns into the target with our friends from Hasbro.

As well as this, there were some amazing sweet treats! Lola’s Cupcakes came with their trailer where you could design your own flavours, while Crosstown doughnuts brought incredible mini doughnuts to sample. Also, we had generous donations from Greggs, Valeo Foods Group, Ocado, and Play in Choc.

On our main stage, we had performances from some our favourite entertainers, many of whom the children will have met during virtual visits or on Smile TV, but were able to meet in person for the first time. This included the incredible Judge The Poet and Captain Calamity. For our music obsessed guests, we had sing-alongs with our fairies Jasmin, Danny, Ellie, Tasha, Becca and Kirtsen and amazing singers, Collette and Joanna. The children had a great time dancing and singing to their favourite songs, while Krisgar and Tricky Teddy provided some magical entertainment.

The most rewarding part of the day for us was seeing the joy we were able to bring to these children and their families. It was a delight to watch them arrive with a smile on their face and anticipation to get stuck into the activities, or watch the activity on the stage. We spoke to parents who felt relieved and emotional at seeing their child having a great time, and experience the excitement and joy that should be part of every childhood.

One of these children was Jacob, who at five years old was attending his second ever party! Jacob has spent a significant amount of his life in hospitals, since first falling ill at 18 months old. Since then, he has spent a lot of time in at Great Ormond Street Hospital following bone marrow transplants, which required him to isolate for long periods. This has impacted Jacob’s ability to socialise and start school, but through our virtual sessions, he was able to sing and dance. Being able to host him and his mum at the party was such an immense privilege, and seeing him interact with our entertainers in person was touching.

As one mum said: “We have had the best day. You really don’t know how much this event has boosted my confidence to get out and do something. Leo being immunosuppressed after his heart transplant obviously makes him very open and vulnerable to infections but straight after clinic today we crossed that road and entered the park. I was anxious with the volume of people but my goodness I shouldn’t have been. Leo who has never ever had a summer out of hospital after going in at 8 months old and coming out at 2 years old. I always wondered how he would adapt to life outside… he embraced everything!!!! Thank you for getting us out and in a community where we feel safe, secure and happy. What I saw from Leo today was bonding, laughter, interaction and lots of new things to explore. I owe you the world and can’t find the words to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

And another who said “What a dream today has been. Thank you so much Spread a Smile for a magical day. Everyone was thoroughly spoilt and Kallie has had the best day. From seeing her favourite fairy, to the bubbles, to the treats to the singing, today has been a dream. We are truly lucky to have such an amazing charity supporting Kallie and many other children who deserve the world and more throughout their journeys.”

We’d like to give a huge thank you to everyone who volunteered. Your commitment and selflessness allowed us to provide so much more fun and entertainment during the day. We’d also like to thank Derwent Art, Staedtler UK, Hunter Price International, Morrisons, Rainbow Designs, Spin Master, Costa Coffee, Swizzels, Tesco, Hasbro Under the Canvas, and City Scaffolding for their incredible generosity.

Finally, thank you to all who attended. Being able to put on events such as this is incredibly rewarding, and knowing that we can make a difference to your family is so special.

You can see more photos from the day on our Instagram!

Spreading joy at Camp Beaumont

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We were delighted to partner with Camp Beaumont for a second consecutive year, throwing parties at five of their school sites across London on Friday 5th August! This included, Colfe’s School, Mill Hill School, Kings College School, Claremont Fan Court School, St Helen’s School.

The events were attended by our amazing entertainers including singers, singing fairies, magicians, face painters who dazzled the children. There was a packed afternoon of activities including face painting, bouncy castle, playing guess the number of sweets in the jar and water fights. Younger ones loved listening to their favourite songs being sung by our singing fairies and asking them about life in fairy land!

We are hugely grateful to the team at Camp Beaumont for their generous support. In addition to helping to promote the work of Spread a Smile to the families attending the camps, they have also organised a raffle to raise funds in aid of our work. Thank you Camp Beaumont!

Inspiring art classes with Charlotte Posner

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We were delighted to host one of our favourite artists, Charlotte Posner, at University College London Hospital in July. Charlotte was kind enough to donate some of her incredible artwork to patients in the teenage cancer ward, bringing some colour and vibrancy to the walls.

She also led a workshop with some younger patients, teaching them how to recreate one of her most famous, iconic pieces: the ice cream pop doll! Everyone who took part had an amazing time, and came away with a piece of art that they can keep in their room to remember the day.

Allowing these children to express their creativity is vitally important, as they are missing out on opportunities to do so outside of hospital, such as in school. Sessions like these also help children to take their mind off of their condition for a short time, and focus their energy and attention on something fun.

For parents, opportunities like this can be a huge relief, as they are able to see their children expressing themselves and being creative, which can be rare for many patients with serious conditions.

Charlotte has worked with iconic brands such as Louis Vuitton, Harrods, Brown Thomas, and Mr Men, so having her in the hospital, engaging with and teaching the children was an incredible privilege.

We’d like to thank Charlotte for her time and her generosity in giving so much to these young people. You can see more of her work here.

Theatre day at Tiger Who Came to Tea

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For children in hospital, opportunities to step away from a clinical environment and socialise are rare, but vital. For families, this is a chance to spend time together and make memories, while for children it also allows them to interact with people their own age going through similar experiences.

That’s why it was such a joy in July to take eight families to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to see one of our favourite books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, come to life on the stage! The classic children’s picture book by Judith Kerr was first published in 1968 and is still one of the most popular and beloved stories.

It was wonderful to see the eyes of the children light up when the lights went down, as they were enthralled by the show! The show itself was marvellous, amusing and packed with sing-a-long songs for all to get involved with. The children and parents were hooked from start to finish.

We’d like to give a huge thank you to everyone in the The Tiger Who Came to Tea team for hosting us, and making the day so wonderful for all the children and their families.

To top off the amazing day, our guests were able to meet the tiger, and he even posed for some pictures with more members of the cast! You can see lots of photos from the day on our Instagram.