Christmas came early this year for 80 brave children living with cancer and spina bifida, as they took to the skies with Santa Claus.
Swapping his sled for a jet, Santa took time out of his extremely hectic winter schedule to come aboard, deliver presents, pose for pictures and lead the children in a festive sing-along.
The Flight of Dreams gives sick children who have been unable to fly due the risk of infection the opportunity to see the world from the clouds — and it’s also a fun day out for all of the family.
The children took off from Belfast International, headed up along the North Coast and took in the sights over Carlingford Lough — no icebergs, but almost as cold.
Little Hannah Black, who suffers from spina bifida, said that she had been looking forward to the flight for ages.
“I was in hospital at Halloween and I couldn’t go out trick or treating,” said the eight-year-old.
“I was having treatment so was in bed — but I did dress up as a witch. I love Christmas and I’m really excited to meet Santa and speak to him about my presents.”
Mum Finnuala (37) said: “It’s our first time on one of the family fun days and it’s just brilliant.
“Hannah’s brother and sister are here with her so it really is an event for the whole family.
“It’s important to mark the holidays like this and I get a chance to talk to other parents who are in similar situations.”
Jude Austin, from the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children, said: “It is a nice way for us to kick off children’s cancer awareness month, which is this December.
“Due to the nature of the disease, a lot of families live in isolation, are housebound and can’t get insurance to fly. This makes it a memorable event for all involved.
“We offer a lot of practical support to families who are coping with the disease. But at a time like Christmas, it’s important for us to celebrate, so this is a fun day when everyone can relax and have a good time,” she added.
The children receive help from the NI Cancer Fund for Children and SHINE — which supports whose living with spina bifida and hydrocephalus — and the annual event is run by Thomas Cook children’s charity.
‘I haven’t sent my letter yet’
Emma Kettyles (7) from Fermanagh has hydrocephalus.
Her mother Lorraine (right) said: “Christmas is her favourite time of year, and today is a big event for us.
“It’s not always easy to get out and about when your child isn’t healthy, but it’s so important to stay positive and make the most of every experience.”
Emma added: “My mum wouldn’t tell me much about today so that I would go to school and concentrate. I’m excited to see Santa and talk to him in person because I haven’t sent my Christmas letter yet.”
‘I’ve been good this year’
Aislinn Loughran (right) is aged nine and from Lurgan. At three years old, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Mum Geraldine (40) said: “I was doing as much as I could on my own, but the respite and one-to-one support they gave me meant I could have a break every now and then.”
Aislinn said: “I’m looking forward to seeing Santa today and telling him I’ve been a good girl this year. NI Cancer fund have also given me and my three sisters tickets to the Jingle Ball next Monday so I’ll be able to dance away to JLS and Olly Murs.”
‘Charity’s help is a lifeline’
Ellie Louise Brown (left) from Dungannon was diagnosed with leukemia in March and has undergone eight months of intensive chemotherapy.
The three-year-old enjoyed yesterday’s flight with mum Fiona (42) and dad Rodney (43).
Fiona said that the NI Cancer Fund had given great support.
“After Ellie Louise was diagnosed, my only other child, Ryan, had a biopsy just before he did his GCSEs, because there were worries about him. Thankfully, he was fine because facing up to one child with a life-threatening illness is every parent’s worst nightmare.
“Northern Ireland Cancer Fund have been great in giving us some respite,” she said.
“Ellie Louise is a really energetic, sociable little child and we both hated being cooped up in the house all day when she was being treated, so their help was a real lifeline.