Joanne McGibbon: 'It was hard going on the holiday without Michael, but I wanted the kids to know it's OK to get on with life'
After her husband's murder, Joanne McGibbon used money from the sale of their house to fund a surprise trip to America
The magic of Disney brought joy back into the lives of four heartbroken Belfast children who celebrated the start of the New Year a world away from the sorrow at home.
Seana McGibbon (17), her brother Shea (9) and sisters Michaela (7) and Corry-Leigh (4) met their favourite Disney characters during a dream trip to Florida organised by their mum Joanne as a Christmas surprise.
The children have endured a horrific year after losing their devoted dad Michael, who was gunned down in an alleyway by dissident republicans in April.
They have also had to adapt to living in a new town with new schools, after leaving Belfast's Ardoyne area, where their father was murdered.
To give her children a much-needed lift and also in the hope of starting 2017 on a more positive note, Joanne surprised her children on Christmas morning with a two-week holiday in Orlando, departing on Boxing Day.
The family only returned home last weekend, five days later than planned after their flight was delayed ... due to snow.
In what she described as "the trip of a lifetime", Joanne said she was thrilled to see her children having fun again following the worst year of their young lives.
Joanne says: "It was a brilliant holiday. The kids were in shock on Christmas morning and spent the whole day really excited, packing their suitcases. Of course, the younger ones wanted to bring all their toys.
"It was strange spending Christmas in the sun and being in the pool, while Frosty the Snowman was playing in the background. We did all the theme parks and visited Magic Kingdom six times and Universal Studios three times. The children had a fantastic time and they loved splashing about in the hotel pool nearly as much as they enjoyed visiting the theme parks.
"The younger ones got to meet their favourite Disney characters - Shea loved Harry Potter, while Seana and I enjoyed The Cat in the Hat. We also did a bit of shopping and had an absolutely fantastic time."
She adds: "For me, it was a chance to start over and show the children that life does go on and that even though bad things happen to good people you can't let it ruin your life.
"We spent New Year's Eve in the Epcot centre with a fantastic fireworks display and hopefully 2017 will bring better things for all of us."
Joanne, who works as a nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital, says she and Michael had often talked about saving up to bring the children to Florida and it was bittersweet for her making the trip without him.
Left with no choice but to sell their family home after Michael's murder, which happened within yards of their front door, she decided to use the money from the sale of the house to treat the children.
Michael (33) bled to death in Joanne's arms after being ordered by dissident republicans to meet them in an alleyway close to the family home.
A distraught Joanne ran to the scene to find Michael bleeding to death. She used her nurse's training to try and save him, but he died within minutes.
It emerged that Michael, who worked as a taxi driver, had been murdered for saying something which one of the terrorist group's members took offence at.
Joanne was bereft without Michael, whom she described as a devoted husband and dad.
Since his murder, her focus has been on helping her children come to terms with his loss. The holiday in Florida was her way of giving them something positive to focus on and she was thrilled to see them smile and have fun again - and, she says, Michael was with them in their thoughts the whole time they were away.
"We weren't sad on the holiday, although it was amazing the things which reminded us of Michael everywhere we went," Joanne says.
"He had been to America as a child and told us all about it, and small things like the Apple Jack cereal he said he ate when he was there reminded us of him. It seemed like everywhere we went, something reminded us of Michael. We felt he was with us the whole time.
"Michael and I had talked about taking the kids to Florida, but we couldn't afford it and it was hard for me to go without him.
"We kept busy, as there was so much to do and see and it was all about allowing the kids to have fun. It was a great trip and I wanted to make the children feel happy after everything they have been through and give them something special - and it was very special.
"We still have our lives and I don't want the children feeling sorry for themselves. I want them to know it is okay to get on with their lives."
Since Michael's murder, Joanne has been an advocate for peace - especially in the Ardoyne community in north Belfast, where she grew up.
She says she was stunned to return home from America to discover Stormont in disarray.
"I just came home and heard the news and thought, 'What is going on here?' It is shocking and you like to think that the government is working towards peace, but after what has happened in the past few weeks, you can't help but think that all they really care about is power."
Joanne also welcomed a new call this week by a leading academic for politicians to deal with the scourge of paramilitarism in our society by making it a key issue in the election.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Queen's University history professor Liam Kennedy called on the parties to make a serious commitment to finally dealing with the issue.
There have been an estimated 10,000 so-called paramilitary-style "punishment" attacks on civilians since 1969.
The Belfast Telegraph asked all the main parties what they believed should be done to tackle the vigilante behaviour and all except Sinn Fein and People Before Profit replied.
Joanne, whose family have suffered so much at the hands of paramilitaries, was shocked at the lack of response from Sinn Fein.
"It does need to stop and be properly addressed by all parties. So many families are suffering and the politicians are the only people who can help and, if they won't help, who can?
"It makes you wonder what Sinn Fein is afraid of. It doesn't make any sense to me that they won't support the call."