SCORES OF sick and seriously ill children from across the UK have left their families behind and conquered their fears on a once-in-a-lifetime sunshine holiday in America.
They spent 10 days in Florida on the annual Dreamflight trip, having been nominated by doctors and nurses in hospitals around the country.
The 192 youngsters - including many from Yorkshire and some of whom require round-the-clock attention - visited the likes of SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Disney World during an all-adventure tour of the Sunshine State.
For many, the trip represented the first time away from home, with volunteer health care professionals acting as chaperones.
As a final treat, children were given the opportunity to swim with dolphins at Discovery Cove in Orlando.
Several of the children were carefully lifted from their wheelchairs to get into the water, where instructors and carers helped them get up close with the mammals.
Tia Davies, 11, from Bridgend, south Wales, said she felt “like a daredevil” after gaining self-belief and confidence during her time on Dreamflight.
Tia, who is visually impaired, said: “When I found out that I was going on Dreamflight, I had to go outside because I wanted to scream - I was too excited.
“I am the first one in my family to go to America and that is special, but I did wonder if I was too scared to actually go on this trip.
“But not any more. I am up for going on any rollercoaster and ride, I feel like a daredevil.
“The best bit was swimming with dolphins, my bampi (grandfather) always said it was his dream to do it so I can’t wait to tell him about that.
“I definitely feel more confident in myself because I always used to worry. I felt different, I worried because I have problems with my eyes and they wobble, I wondered what people were thinking.
“But now I know that I am just unique, and that I got chosen to do something really amazing. I feel lucky.”
The charity is celebrating its 30th year, having been supported by the late Diana, Princess of Wales, for its maiden flight, while a host of celebrities including golfer Ian Poulter, singer Sir Cliff Richard, and television personality Myleene Klass have given up their time to help out.
Jacob Isherwood, 11, of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, said: “I was extremely excited. For about five minutes straight I was speechless and then I ran upstairs and laid on my bed and thought about what I was going to pack in six months time. My family were really excited for me too. But I knew something was going on because they all came downstairs with cameras. I go to hospital a lot because I have got a syndrome which mean that my kidneys leak a lot of protein. I get to miss days off school but at the same time I don’t really get to do a lot of fun stuff. This trip has been fantastic. I would normally be at home on my Xbox. And now I’ve come out to Florida and have been swimming with dolphins. I’m just speechless.”
Charity founder Pat Pearce said: “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years - it was supposed to be a one-off trip, but people said, ‘There are more children out there who need this break, you’ve got to do it again.’
“The 16th of November, 1987, Princess Diana came to wave us off. That was very, very special for the children, and for me if I’m honest.
“When I started it I thought it was just a holiday of a lifetime, I didn’t realise how far reaching it (Dreamflight) is. The children get so much from each other, not from us adults. They see possibly somebody worse off than themselves and they think, ‘Yes, I can do it’.
“For example, our former Dreamflight children now have 37 Paralympic medals. Another came back as a doctor. It’s not just the holiday of a lifetime, it does change lives.”
Paralympic champion Liz Johnson was among those volunteers supporting the children, having travelled to Florida as a Dreamflight child 19 years earlier.
The 30-year-old swimmer, who won gold at the Beijing games in 2008 and more recently appeared on Celebrity Masterchef, said: “There are so many reasons why I feel I need to give back to this charity.
“Some children you see the direct impact within the ten days of the trip but for others it’s a more subtle impact that goes throughout their lifetimes.
“That was true for me - para swimming and parasport.
“Everything links back to that - the opportunities I’m getting and the person I’ve become are because of my experiences as a para athlete and it was Dreamflight that gave me the confidence to pursue that career.”
The overall trip costs around £800,000 and covers everything from a chartered British Airways jet to three meals a day.
:: For more information on the charity and Discovery Cove, visit Dreamflight.org and Seaworldparks.co.uk.