The magic of Christmas has been sparked alive for a group of seriously ill children from all over Northern Ireland.
The 100 excited youngsters, who each suffer from a terminal or long-term illness, were guests of honour at Santa Claus’ snowy home in Lapland this week.
And their little faces were a picture of pure happiness and joy as they met their jolly friend to be given an early present and have a chat about what they would like delivered in the early hours of next Tuesday.
The children’s day of cherished memories began early at Belfast International Airport when a specially chartered Thomas Cook Airbus took off with 220 passengers on board.
A few hours later the young travellers — accompanied by the parents, doctors and nurses who care for them — arrived at the Arctic Airport in Kittila, north Finland.
Dressed up warmly for the -20C conditions, the group was greeted by Santa’s elves who brought them to his Snow Village.
Apart from the thrill of meeting Santa privately in his log cabin, the youngsters also got the chance to make gingerbread with Mrs Claus.
There were also action-packed adventures during the busy day-trip, including husky and reindeer rides and a visit to an ice hotel.
The heart-warming trip was organised and funded by the Northern Ireland Children for Lapland Trust (NICLT), which has been bringing sick children to meet Santa for five years.
Among the conditions and illnesses being battled by the children on the trip were Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, kidney conditions, severe epilepsy, eye problems and cancer. They were each nominated by the hospital they are treated at to take part.
The trust was founded by charity fundraiser Jack Rodgers, who joined them for the once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Known as Northern Ireland’s very own Santa, Mr Rodgers and his team work hard to ensure the children have an amazing day to remember.
Philomena Feehan from Newry was on the trip with her 10-year-old son Ciaran. “We have had a brilliant day,” Philomena told the Belfast Telegraph.
“We wouldn't have missed it. Ciaran loved the husky rides. He enjoyed the entire day.
“It's the trip of a lifetime for him. I couldn't believe it all myself.”
Broadcaster Gerry Kelly, a trustee of the NICLT charity, was on his third trip to Lapland with the children.
“We sit all year and plan this,” Gerry said. “From the middle of January to July you tend to forget the final outcome, so it's only when you come along in December and see the joy on the kids’ and parents’ faces that it hits you.
“It is a magic thing to do and be part of. To see the happy faces of these young people, some of whom, and it's horrible to say, may not see next Christmas, is why we do this.
“To give them this opportunity for one day of pure unadulterated joy just makes the rest of the year worthwhile and all the effort of fundraising worthwhile.”
The Snow Village in Lapland was booked exclusively for the group from Northern Ireland.
One of Santa's helpers, Rami Kurtakko, is managing director of the Snow Village, which has been open between December and April for the last 12 years.
He explained it covers 5,000sq metres of snowy landscape.
“We create a different layout every year, and the architecture and decoration theme varies, too,” Rami added.
“It is a privilege for us to host this group from Northern Ireland and give everyone a special day.”
The annual trip costs more than £150,000 and NICLT's goal is to book a 480-seater Jumbo Jet to help create even more lasting memories for local families.
If you can fundraise for NICLT or donate money or time call 077 1073 1517. For more information visit www.niclt.org
Meet Jack, the person responsible for making the youngsters’ dreams come true
By Amanda Poole
He's known as Northern Ireland’s own Santa Claus.
And when you see the look of sheer joy on the faces of children Jack Rodgers takes to Lapland, you see immediately why he does it.
John Calvert Gingles Rodgers (right) MBE, known to all as Jack, set up the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland Trust (NICLT) five years ago after identifying a need for the magic of an annu
al trip to visit Santa for sick children.
As the 63-year-old says, the charity is not about finding a cure to the illnesses the children suffer, it’s about making festive dreams come true.
Jack, who lives in Carrickfergus but is originally from Larne, is married to Lynne, who helped him found the trust.
The charity campaigner has two grown-up children — a son and a daughter — from his first marriage.
So as a father he understands the importance of bringing joy into children's lives. His aim through the trust is to fulfil the dreams of the terminally ill, the long-term ill and deserving children.
Before starting up NICLT, Jack spent most of his working life in the entertainment and hospitality industry. But he has always been involved in helping a variety of local charity groups. He was awarded an MBE in this year’s Honours list for his services to children and charities here over 40 years.
Jack said his reward is seeing the “kids laughing and having smiles on their faces”.