Fiona Williamson is the General Manager of a very special charity – the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland and Days to Remember Trust. This extremely busy lady works tirelessly behind the scenes to make dreams come true for children living with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions.
Since its inception in 2008, this charity has been a beacon of hope, bringing joy and unforgettable experiences to these young warriors.
Fiona’s journey with the charity began right from the start, and she brings a wealth of experience from her background in travel and tourism. She is also an award-winning tour operator. Her expertise in event organisation and her passion for creating magical experiences for these children make her an indispensable part of the team.
Fiona spoke to Mighty Women NI to tell us about her very special role and the planning involved in the Lapland trip alone.
“I am responsible for coordinating, organising, and administering our trips, especially our one-day excursion to Lapland where our aeroplane essentially transforms into a flying hospital, equipped with an abundance of medical supplies. We are accompanied by a team of doctors and nurses and their in-depth knowledge of each child’s specific condition is invaluable.
“Every department at both Belfast International Airport and Rovaniemi Airport in Finland is well-informed about the unique nature of our flight, ensuring a seamless experience from check-in and security to passport control and wheelchair assistance.
“In Lapland, I manage all land arrangements, including private coaches and exclusive bookings for snow-related activities tailored for our group. I am in constant liaison with all stakeholders to guarantee the trip’s smooth execution.”
“Additionally, I play a key role in organising our fundraising events, contributing to the overall success of our of what we do, and making it all possible.”
The intricate planning for these trips starts six months in advance.
Fiona continued: “The planning process starts with the procurement of the airline and coordinating the land arrangements in Lapland. The complexity of our trips involves numerous working components, engaging approximately 100 individuals, including those on-site, in the air, and overseas.
“Within the charity, a dedicated team of 14 members, comprising of our management board, North Coast, and North Down Fundraising Committees, collaboratively orchestrates the intricate details of the trips and others like it on our calendar.”
One of the most heartwarming aspects of Fiona’s job is making that first contact with the families of the selected children.
“The hospital consultants, along with nurses and community nurses across all health trusts here are responsible for choosing the children who participate in our trips,” she said.
“The medical staff initiates the first contact with parents or guardians to extend an invitation for this extraordinary trip. Once the parents are informed, I step in to handle the subsequent arrangements. It’s during this phase that I am privileged to experience the overwhelming joy we provide to these families, making each phone call a profoundly humbling experience.”
On the day of the trip, Fiona and her team are focused on ensuring that the children have the most incredible day of their lives. However, once the day is over, the emotions come flooding in.
“Throughout the day, I strive to maintain focus because I fully grasp the magnitude of the operation we’re undertaking.
“Our team is dedicated to ensuring these children have the most incredible day of their lives. However, once I’m home, emotions do surface, and I can’t help but shed a tear when reflecting on the collective efforts that have made the day so magical. By ‘everyone’ I mean the various professional departments, the NI Children to Lapland team, and, most importantly, the children and their parents who display remarkable bravery.
“Nothing can compare to the pure joy on the faces of our children, parents, and medical teams when they meet Santa or engage with the huskies and reindeer. Being part of this experience is truly a privilege.”
The Lapland trip costs approximately £800 per child, and the charity heavily relies on fundraising to make these experiences possible. Fiona extends her heartfelt thanks to corporate partners like Wineflair, Hagan Homes, The Bushmills Inn, and others whose annual donations play a pivotal role in funding these trips.
“As we don’t receive any government aid, our reliance is solely on the generosity of the people of Northern Ireland,” added Fiona.
Besides the Lapland trip, the charity also organises trips to Disneyland Paris when funds permit.
“In May 2023, we orchestrated a memorable experience, bringing together a group of 12 children and their families for a two-night stay at Disney. We allow one or both parents and, perhaps, a sibling to join in the fun. Because, let’s not forget, when a child is seriously ill, it effects the entire family unit.”
To support the Children to Lapland and Days to Remember Trust in their mission, Fiona encourages individuals, businesses, and organisations to get involved in fundraising.
“We have been very fortunate over the years to have been able to build up an extensive and loyal group of supporters, but we would love to do so much more and there are many different ways in which businesses, organisations and individuals can help.
“While our dedicated community of backers has been a tremendous force, we’re eager to expand our impact, and everyone and anyone can be a vital part of our mission.
“Every contribution, regardless of its size, holds immeasurable value in creating joy. Individuals and businesses can volunteer their time, and engage in our sponsored events like the annual Walk to Scotland, cycling, or abseiling.
“A business could also consider designating us as its charity of choice for marathons, bungee jumps, or parachute jumps.
“We have companies and individuals that organise local events, such as coffee mornings or cake sales and name us as their chosen charity. Some aim to cover the cost of one or more children’s trips.
“We also encourage schools to seize the opportunity to instil empathy and kindness in their students while supporting our cause. We’ve even seen the impact of generous bequests in wills! It truly is a rewarding charity to work for but also a very deserving charity to give to.”