The hospitals treat the illness, Barretstown treats the children...

As the Barretstown camp for sick children marks 25 years, CHRIS DUNNE talks to a Cork family who have benefited from it
The hospitals treat the illness, Barretstown treats the children...
The Lucey family of Macroom. Dad Jim and mum Caroline. L to R, Conor, Sean, Aoife and James.

WHEN teenager Aoife Lucey fell ill with leukaemia, she and her family faced a gruelling time involving travel, treatment, tests and, of course, great stress all round.

But the Luceys, from Macroom, also had a place to go where they could escape the pressures, have fun and smile, and live in the moment: Barretstown.

Barretstown is a not for profit camp for children with cancer and other serious illnesses, located at Barretstown Castle in Co. Kildare.

It was founded 25 years ago this year, in 1994, by Hollywood actor Paul Newman and belongs to the SeriousFun Children’s Network of camps across the world.

So many families around the globe and in Ireland have benefited from Barretstown. The Luceys are among them.

They accepted the invitation for some welcome ‘time out’ there when Aoife, aged 14, was diagnosed with leukaemia a few years ago, and have paid many return visits.

“Aoife remembers her time at Barretstown as a magical time,” says mum, Caroline.

The fun and laughter are embedded in the fairytale surroundings where everything is free and easy. It is still vivid in her mind.

When Aoife was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2015 before her 12th birthday, the family took one day at a time.

“Aoife was always healthy and she’s very sporty,” says Caroline.

She is an all-rounder; a team player.

“Aoife loves being involved in athletics, football, soccer and camogie. She takes part in the park run in Macroom on Saturday mornings.”

When the active youngster got a bit lethargic and run-down, there was no real cause for alarm until a persistent sore throat and signs of bruising needed to be checked out.

“Aoife went on antibiotics and saw the GP for a second time. Little dots (petechiae), had begun to appear on her body,” says Caroline.

“She was referred to the Mercy Hospital for blood tests.”

Aoife was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), requiring an intensive two-and-a-half year treatment involving chemotherapy.

“Aoife knew from the start,” says Caroline. “She was prepared for the side-effects like losing her hair. Aoife had lovely long hair.

“We took one day at a time. The first year was the worst; we were always on high alert.

“If Aoife’s temperature went up over 38 degrees, we had to go to hospital for an injection. The day of her brothers’ communion in May, Aoife woke up with a high temperature and before the day was out, she was in hospital.

“The support from family, friends and from the community was greatly appreciated. The medical staff at the Mercy Hospital, Cork, and at Crumlin Hospital, Dublin, were amazing.”

However, the first family trip to Barretstown was a priceless opportunity to relax and have fun.

“One of the social workers in Crumlin Hospital mentioned Barretstown to us,” says Caroline.

“We knew Aoife and the boys, Conor, James, and Sean, would all love it; they’re so sporty. They were really excited going to Barretstown.

“We all got to go!” adds Caroline. “And we could all enjoy the experience; it was like the family holiday we couldn’t plan.”

Aoife Lucey and mum Caroline from Macroom
Aoife Lucey and mum Caroline from Macroom

At Barretstown, the children could be just children again. Jim and Caroline could be just mum and dad.

“It is a really fun camp that caters for everybody’s requirements,” says Caroline. “The volunteers do a fantastic job ensuring that everyone is happy.

“Activities are adapted so that every camper, regardless of abilities, can participate, and achieve success,” says Caroline.

Worries are left behind when entering Barretstown.

“Behind the scenes, there is 24 hour on-site medical and nursing care,” says Caroline.

“It was great to see the kids so happy again, taking part in the fun and games.

“We got to spend quality time together in a lovely setting that was so relaxed.”

Participation in a Barretstown camp can transform lives, spreading joy and laughter to children living with serious illness, such as cancer, and their families.

“You become a child again,” says Caroline. “You laugh again.”

There’s plenty to be happy about at Barretstown.

“All your meals are prepared!” say Caroline.

It is a setting where new friends and new bonds are made.

“We valued the support of other families,” says Caroline. “We took part in the quizzes and we tried our hand at on the lake.”

Aoife loved Barretstown. The camp is a tonic, where everyone leaves worries behind, engaging in fun and laughter, having new adventures and making new friends.

“Hospitals treat the illness. Barretstown treats the child,” explains Caroline.

Aoife was smitten with the camp where everyone ‘could raise a little hell’ together.

“She returned to Barretstown again herself,” says Caroline. “She is very independent. It was great because when Aoife was sick, she was attached to us all the time. Barretstown gave her confidence and she regained her self-esteem.

“Aoife made great friends there that she is still in contact with. She wants to go back to Barretstown to volunteer when she is old enough. Also, it made her realise just how lucky she is, which is important. She met other children, not as fortunate as her.

“Aoife’s brothers went to Barretstown with her on several occasions. They also enjoyed being campers. Of course, it is always better without the parents!”

In the tender loving care of her parents and the medical teams at the Mercy Hospital, and at Crumlin, Aoife gradually got better.

“During the first year of treatment, there was a lot of minding,” say Caroline. “Then she went on maintenance treatment which was not as severe and involved fewer trips to the hospitals. Things got easier.

“We were always confident that Aoife would get better; and we knew she was in the care of a very professional medical team. She is one year clear now and back to all her sports.”

Aoife had an amazingly positive attitude throughout her illness. “She never gave up,” say Caroline.

The Lucey family is very grateful to the local community for the support received during Aoife’s illness.

Aoife has just returned from a mid-term ski-ing trip and visit to her uncle in Switzerland, once again enjoying full health.

She has travelled near and far, but always feels close to Barretstown, the magical place of which she has fond memories.

“Domino’s Pizza arrived one day,” says Aoife, tossing her glossy black hair over her shoulder. “We got to make our own pizzas!”

And eat them too?

“Oh yes, we ate them all too!” she says.

There were always new things to try out at Barretstown. It gives joy back to the children whose childhoods are marred by illness.

“It was the best time ever,” says Aoife. “I made new friends. I tried archery, rock climbing and horse-riding. Baking was great fun!

The volunteers at Barretstown encourage everyone’s participation in the fun activities

Aoife is taking time out of her busy schedule to return to Barretstown at Easter. “They always remember me there,” she says. “The volunteers are so nice.”

She is back now on track, playing her team sports. She recently won a County Juvenile Cross-Country team medal in Dundalk.

The family can look forward to future events.

“James and Sean are getting their Confirmation on April 2,” says Caroline. “It’s great to see the kids so happy again.”

Aoife has ambitions for the future.

“I want to be a teacher like my Mum and Dad,” she says. “And I want to be a volunteer at Barretstown.”

Minister for Health Simon Harris visits Barretstown to mark International Childhood Cancer Day and the charity’s ‘Press Play’ campaign. Photo: Sasko Laszarov/Photocall Ireland
Minister for Health Simon Harris visits Barretstown to mark International Childhood Cancer Day and the charity’s ‘Press Play’ campaign. Photo: Sasko Laszarov/Photocall Ireland

ABOUT BARRETSTOWN

Barretstown was set up in 1994 with the aim to provide therapeutic recreation to sick children and their families.

The camp offers a child a centred programme designed to meet individual needs of each child/family member.

Their mission is to re-build the lives of children affected by serious illness. The camp stresses that visitors to Barretstown should forget about illness, learn to have fun, and learn to rebuild confidence and self-esteem.

info@barretstown.org

Phone: 045-864115

CREATING A PARADISE

WHEN the actor, Paul Newman, first set eyes on the fairytale castle on the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains 25 years ago, he knew his search for a children’s paradise in Ireland was over.

“This was where I wanted the first European camp to be,” he said, referring to Barretstown.

The Hollywood legend envisaged a custom-built paradise for children that he would model on his USA Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, giving children with serious illnesses from Ireland, Europe and the USA, the chance to be simply children, and just have fun.

“I imagined a kind of medieval bazaar where children from different countries could ‘raise a little hell’ together,” he said.

The actor started his charity with $2 million of his own money, while the Irish Government gave a generous donation of 500 acres of land in Co. Kildare for his project

“I hope my legacy is not my acting, my racing or my politics” said Newman, who passed away in September, 2008. “I hope it is my camps.”

Culinary legend Darina Allen once had the pleasure of hosting Newman when he stayed at Ballymaloe House 15 years ago, while he was in the country for the 10th anniversary of Barretstown.

“He was fascinated by the cookery school and the gardens,” recalls Darina. “Paul had a tour of the farm and he was really interested in organic farming, with our jersey cows producing milk, butter and yogurt.

“Cooking was Paul’s hobby, and we were all familiar with Newman’s Own, Paul’s brand of pasta sauces and salad dressings.”

Did he and Darina swap notes? “We did, and he was very taken with the Cookery School.”

I bet the students and the staff were very taken with him!

“Yes, indeed!” says Darina. “Those legendary blue eyes caused quite a stir about the place!

“Paul was very friendly and had a word for everyone. There is huge credit due to him, offering sick children a chance to have fun and feel care-free.”

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