Children battling serious ailments visit Santa's Lapland home
It was their dream to meet Father Christmas in the magic of his home in Lapland.
And there were emotional scenes as those dreams came true for a group of 120 seriously ill children from across Northern Ireland.
The joy of the festive season was brought to life for the group of youngsters as they were flown from Belfast to Finland for a special meeting with the jolly big man himself.
The extraordinary trip was organised by Northern Ireland Children to Lapland Trust (NICLT), a charity which each year takes youngsters who are terminally ill, life-limited or deserving for other reasons on an enchanting Arctic adventure they will never forget.
The 2013 visit began at 6am on a cold December morning when the children, their carers, medical staff from hospitals and the charity team boarded a new A321 Thomas Cook aircraft for its maiden flight to Lapland.
It costs around £180,000 to pay for the flight to Rovanemi and festive activities organised for the group at Finland's Santa Park, where there is very little daylight and the temperature can plummet to -20c.
But the lack of light and chilly conditions was not a problem, as the excitable group were kitted out in warm clothing for their magical visit to Santa's home, which is filled with sparkling lights.
The day trip was one big party from start to finish. As well as getting to meet Santa and make ginger bread with Mrs Claus, the action-packed schedule included a range of activities.
Under the watchful eye of Santa's cheery elves, thrill-seekers took part in reindeer and husky rides, sledging and mini-skidoo rides, with the odd good-natured snowball fight thrown into the mix.
Among the conditions being battled by the children on the trip are cancer, cerebral palsy and learning difficulties.
Sadly, some of the youngsters will not be here next Christmas so the NICLT trip was packed with as much joy and laughter as possible. It's hoped the day will serve as a lasting memory for families to treasure.
Veteran broadcaster Gerry Kelly is an NICLT trustee. He told the Belfast Telegraph that despite the tough economic times, 2013 has been one of NICLT's best year's for fundraising, with the Northern Ireland public proving endlessly generous.
Gerry said: "The trip away comes together following all the fund-raising throughout the year. I wish the people who so generously donate money could see the looks on the children's faces for themselves. I would love everyone to see how happy it makes them. It's just incredible.
"From the moment we hit the airport at 6am it's non-stop. If we are called on to help we do, but we generally leave it to the families to enjoy and everything runs smoothly thanks to the efforts of the whole team. I can't say enough good things about the individuals and businesses who support us. We want to say a big thank you to everyone.
"It's such a special day for these kids, it really is."
If you would like to fundraise for NICLT or donate money or time please call 077 1073 1517. For more information visit the website at www.nicit.org
The charity veteran who made it all possible
Jack Rodgers is known to many as Northern Ireland's very own Santa Claus.
He is the president of the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland Trust (NICLT) and was last year awarded an MBE for services to children and charities over 40 years.
The 64-year-old is from Larne and now lives in Carrickfergus. He is an entrepreneur and father-of-two who has spent most of his working life in the entertainment and hospitality industry.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he explained why he decided to set up the charity six years ago.
Jack said: "I was president of the Northern Ireland Children's Club for 34 years, until we folded it up about eight years ago. Through the heart of the Troubles we raised more than £2m, so I was always used to working with children's charities.
"I saw a charity in the south (of Ireland) was doing flights to Lapland and the last one was for kids from a hospice and I thought 'Oh, my God that would be a lovely idea'.
"I didn't think we could get enough kids to fill a flight, but then I discovered there are up to 1,500 terminally ill kids and up to 5,000 life-limited kids in Northern Ireland at any one time."
Amazing, fabulous, wonderful... what families said about their special trip
The look of joy on their faces said it all.
The children who visited Santa Park in Lapland are terminally ill, life-limited or deserving of their place on the special adventure for other reasons.
On this year's day trip, 120 children from across Northern Ireland were accompanied by medical staff, their family, carers and the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland Trust (NICLT) team.
Speaking from Santa Park, two parents told the Belfast Telegraph what the Arctic adventure meant to them and their little ones.
Anne Campbell from Omagh accompanied her 12-year-old son Owen, who has severe learning difficulties, autism and epilepsy.
"It's an amazing experience. He is loving it. It was his first time on an aeroplane, and thankfully it went well," she said.
"We went on husky and reindeer rides and he is fixated with an indoor train. There are ice queens and elves running about.
"It has been a fabulous adventure. He is having a ball and loving every second of it." Anne explained what securing a place had meant to her family.
"It really is the trip of lifetime," she said. "I couldn't believe the place when we arrived.
"Owen is very innocent. He's more like a seven-year-old as opposed to 12. He loves Christmas and this has been such an experience for him."
That sentiment was echoed by Kim Coleman from Glarryford who was on the trip with her husband Robin and their children Robbie (7), Amy (6) and Ross (4). Amy and Ross have cystic fibrosis.
"It's magical here," Kim said.
"It's wonderful. The kids are in awe. Everything has gone to plan and the kids are having a ball.
"We are just back from reindeer rides outside. It's been super.
"It gives the kids a break from their everyday life, tablets and physio.
"Their wee faces are lit up. We are absolutely delighted.
"The kids are that happy and entertained. It means so much to us, so thank you to NICLT and everyone who works so hard to make today happen."