Happiness, sadness, release and reflection

In the 20 years it has been running, Barretstown Gang Camp has helped countless sick children and their families

Maria and Daragh Killian, with their four daughters, Olivia, Laura, Sophie and Eve. The family, from Trim in Co Meath, have just finished their three-cycle run of camps. Photograph: David Cantwell

Maria and Daragh Killian, with their four daughters, Olivia, Laura, Sophie and Eve. The family, from Trim in Co Meath, have just finished their three-cycle run of camps. Photograph: David Cantwell

Tue, Jul 8, 2014, 01:00

Barretstown Gang Camp is a slice of magic in the Co Kildare countryside. It runs camps for children with cancer and other serious illnesses, and, during its spring and autumn sessions, for their families as well.

Founded 20 years ago, in July 1994, by the Hollywood actor Paul Newman as part of his Hole in the Wall Gang Camp foundation, it is set amid the wooded grounds of Barretstown Castle, complete with a “secret garden”.

The children get to run amok canoeing, horse riding, and doing arts and crafts, among other activities.

“It’s a very safe environment,” says Maria Killian, whose daughter Olivia was diagnosed with leukaemia in July 2012, when she was three.

“Just down to small things such as putting on a harness if I went to a park somewhere with zip wires. Because Olivia has a line in her chest, she has a port, which she calls her ’Freddy’, through which she gets her chemo; it’s something she’s very conscious of and there are a lot of activities she couldn’t do.

“But in Barretstown, they have proper harnesses and such well-trained staff.

“They know how to get them into these things and out again, and they’re not going to push a child to do something they’re not able to do, so you’re always going to succeed. They appreciate that little things are major for the children.”

Family affair

Olivia has a twin sister, Laura, and two older sisters, Sophie and Eve. The family, from Trim in Co Meath, have just finished their three-cycle run of camps.

Olivia finished a nine-month course of chemotherapy a few weeks before their first camp in May 2013.

“For me, it always marks when things began to change a little bit for Olivia,” says her mother. “She’s still on treatment until the end of this year. She was so low going that first weekend. She had stopped talking. Her muscles became very weak so she stopped walking.

“She was always the messer of the four of them. She was always bright-eyed, and that went during the chemo. She went very in on herself.

“Barretstown was the first glimpse that we were getting her back. She came back on cloud nine.

“It was not what I expected. I went under duress, to be honest. I thought this is all going to be Hi-de-Hi campers – and it is that – but I had not expected to see [the improvement] in her.

“They break them up into groups of their own ages, and she went off doing her little activities. Even just seeing her go away was difficult for me; it had been so intense up until that.

“Her sisters had been up and down the climbing wall. She wouldn’t do it – she spent the weekend in a wheelchair – but on the last day, she said she wanted to do it. She did the small, purple climbing wall. She was so chuffed with herself.

“It was the first time for so long that she had done something with her sisters. It was her saying, ‘Right, I’m back.’ ”

Bereavement

Another side of the story is that Barretstown also runs bereavement camps for immediate family members of a child who has died. Grace was four years old when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer. She died a year later.

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