It will be a very early start for up to 100 children, their parents, carers and medical professionals who will head to Belfast International Airport tomorrow (Wednesday 21 December) to board the first Northern Ireland Children to Lapland and Days to Remember Trust (NICLT) Lapland flight for the first time since the pandemic.
The trip will see the children — those living with challenging conditions, some of which are life-threatening as well as life-limiting — and a huge support team made up of Trust medics, nurses and carers, as well as parents, arrive at the airport for 5am.
The children and their cohort of supporters will be welcomed by The Choir Studio from Newry, who will fill the air with festive music, initiating the magic of what will be a fun-packed day.
Tour operator TUI will have the aircraft ready for takeoff when the fun and games will begin, including art competitions and sing-alongs.
After a three-hour flight, the children will disembark the aeroplane and make their way to the magical location of Rovaniemi where Santa resides in a cavernous and truly magical winter wonderland, under the Arctic Circle.
The mystical spot, just 800 kilometres north of Helsinki, is where the children meet with Santa and his huskies, bake with Mrs Claus, take a magical train ride and even qualify from Elf school.
This year will mark NICLT’s eleventh trip to Lapland, while the 2022 passengers onboard will bring the total amount of guests the charity has taken to Rovaneimi to over 1200 in its 12 years of operation.
Planned with painstaking detail, NICLT’s trip to Lapland is not without its challenges. Not only is a team of medical professionals required to ensure the safety of those onboard but a host of equipment is needed to ensure their comfort too.
Without the support of NI health professionals, Belfast International Airport, TUI, airport ground staff here and Wild Nordic ground staff in Finland, none of this would be possible.
The mission of the trip is to give deserving children from across the Province an experience that they can cherish; an experience that would otherwise not be possible given the complexities associated with travelling with many of the conditions the children are living with.
At any given stage in Northern Ireland, there are at least 1500 children suffering from a terminal or life-limiting illness and NICLT has an objective to alleviate the pressures these children and their families face by organising experiences like the Lapland visit.
This year the usual cost of the trip — approximately £750 per child — has increased substantially to accommodate the cost of living crisis and surging fuel costs.
It means the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland and Days to Remember Trust has had to intensify its fundraising efforts and appeals while many of its corporate partners dug even deeper to ensure the resumption of the trip.
NICLT’s President, Gerry Kelly, said: “We are delighted to be able to resume our trip to Lapland this Christmas and create memories with some of the most deserving children here and their families.
“The Northern Ireland Children to Lapland Trust relies solely on donations and fundraising drives and we are so grateful to our donors, supporters and corporate partners who have empathised greatly and reflected those higher costs pressures on us through their contributions.
“Without them our trip to Lapland this year would not be happening.”
Chairman of NICLT, Colin Barkley, added: “On one day a year we fill an aeroplane with children with particular needs, their families, healthcare professionals and a host of equipment. The aircraft is effectively a flying hospital while the authorities in Lapland are aware of the nature of our flight and an ambulance and the local hospital are on standby.
“It is this setup that is meticulously planned that allows many of these children to fly for the first time ever, due in part to prohibitive insurance and the nature of their condition.
“It’s no easy feat but one that delivers so much joy and creates life-long memories for all involved, and we are so happy to bring it back after a two-year break.
“Because we are self-funded, it’s important to us to thank our supporters, corporate sponsors and the individuals who go out of their way to help make this wonderful trip of a lifetime a reality.
“We would also like to thank those on the ground, here and in Finland who go above and beyond to accommodate the children and their needs.”
Dr Mark Rollins, a charity Trustee and a Senior Consultant Paediatrician, explains: “NI Children to Lapland and Days to Remember Trust is a unique charity which allows health and community care workers, based in all the paediatric departments and hospitals in Northern Ireland, to nominate the sick children they feel most deserve such an amazing treat.
“The health teams are all aware of the significant burden on carers and families who look after their child’s condition and needs on a daily basis. Doctors, nurses and allied health professionals give up their own time to volunteer to ensure that these children can experience a magical time in a safe environment whilst not forgetting the boost the trip gives to their self-confidence and mental well-being.
“Of all the charities I have ever been involved with, NICLT is definitely extra special.”