I’d like to tell you guys about a wonderful place I went to in October. Spoiler alert – it has absolutely nothing to do with running for a change! Months and months ago, I sent in an application to volunteer as a cara at Barretstown Castle in Co. Kildare. ‘Cara’ is Irish for ‘friend’ and Barretstown is a Spring/Summer/Autumn camp for children that have had cancer and serious blood diseases. It’s part of the network of Hole in the Wall camps founded by the actor Paul Newman. So basically, the caras were a group of guys and girls that came in and worked alongside activity leaders who work there the whole year round, and run activities like arts and crafts, canoeing, archery, fishing and high ropes.
Fortunately I was accepted for a weekend camp beginning last October 12th at 9am. The camp itself is located on the grounds of a castle at Ballymore Eustace in Kildare, which is quite out of the way and so I was pretty late arriving; by the time I got there, the caras were leaving the breakfast hall and moving onto the theater for training. This weekend was a family camp where the children would arrive with their whole families and stay in a village of about 13 cottages. So our training began in the morning and went on until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when the families began to arrive. Until then, the caras spent the day practicing camp games, songs and of course, the Chi Chi Wa dance.
This was the only version I could find on YouTube; there were a bunch of other songs and dances we practiced by Glee, Olly Murs, Justin Bieber… basically the sort of stuff I listen to all the time anyway There were also a lot of games which involved introducing ourselves to each other in silly and creative ways, which in hindsight was great because by the time the families arrived, we all felt like we knew each other really well and could just jump into this experience straightaway. And it also did a total 180 on your mindset; there were more than a few awkward looks when we realized we’d be dancing around doing the chicken-legs with our tongues out; a few people were probably scanning the room for hidden cameras recording us making fools of ourselves! By the end of training, everybody was just relaxed and ready to make sure the kids were having fun and their families were enjoying themselves also. It was really a very short weekend for the families, lasting from about 4pm on Friday until 2pm on Sunday.
We spent that first evening getting to know our families through free flow activities such as balloon animals, arts & crafts and face-painting - each family was assigned enough caras so that there would always be two adults per child at all times. Dinner was a big event every evening; this was where all the dance-training was put to good use.
One of the funny things was that on the first night, only the kids would want to do the dancing before dinner; by the end the mums and dads would be up as well, getting into costumes and all sorts of craziness. It was a lot of fun.
On the Saturday morning, we had blocks of group games. Our group went into the drawing room in the actual castle and we did a bunch of silly games with the younger kids like putting a big red flag on a rope, getting everybody in a circle, and passing it around as quickly as we could until it was passed back to the first person. (In case you were wondering, our time was 19 seconds. A Barretstown record, or so we were told!) Later that morning was canoeing; where the activities leaders really came into their own, making up hilarious games to get the kids to put on their safety gear, playing tag in the canoes, throwing rubber ducks into the lake for them to collect – the biggest compliment I can pay the activity leaders is that our work, as caras, didn’t feel like work at all. Everyone was just having a blast.
If you ask anyone who has been to Barretstown, they will probably tell you about the New Heights. Just look at this!
There is very little I can add to that; there’s nothing quite as humbling, as satisfying or as wonderful as watching a kid, who has spent a long time hospitalized and in a lot of pain with a serious life-threatening condition – and now they’re climbing a 40 foot tower, jumping through the air, grabbing a trapeze – and they’re loving every second of it. Then it’s their parents’ turn to climb and their turn to do the cheering, which is equally fun. We lucked out as Saturday was gloriously sunny so we got a great two-hour session and every child and parent had the time to do whatever they wanted on the high ropes.
Also every evening after dinner, there would be an evening program in the theater; the first night was just a free-flow of fun activities – karaoke, face-painting, giant Connect4, getting some unfortunate activity-leader in the stocks and pelting wet sponges at them… The second night was something closer to a pantomime/scavenger hunt where one of the three little pigs had gone missing and we took the kids off in groups all over the castle looking for clues as to where the swine was hiding! I really don’t feel like I could possibly do the place justice – Barretstown was quite simply the most fun I’ve ever had. There is an element of responsibility insofar as you are looking after a group of children who have been through a really tough time. But honestly, the full-time staff are so good at their jobs, and the children were having so much fun as well, that it really does not feel like work at all. Quick example, one of the girls in our family (all of nine years old) was speculating at dinner-time about how much easier it would be if spaghetti was a fruit that grew on trees. Her dad and I both responded immediately that of course there are spaghetti trees and they only grow at Barretstown! This became something of a running joke that the rest of the caras got in on; every time she’d say something like “There’s no spaghetti trees really…. right?” we’d give a deadpan response “Oh yeah definitely, there are loads of them here.” By the last day, our insistence was no longer enough, solid evidence was required. So just a few minutes before the last dinner, we threw together a totally convincing “baby spaghetti tree”.
To get serious for just a second, I would really recommend to anyone reading that you get involved with Barretstown or one of the other Hole in the Wall camps in some way. The therapeutic recreation program is widely endorsed by medical professionals as having great benefits in rebuilding the confidence and self-esteem of children who’ve suffered with cancer and serious blood diseases, aiding their recovery and helping them acquire new skills. If you have children who would be eligible to take part, or know a family who could attend these camps, please check out the Parents & Families section of the Barretstown website for more information. Barretstown put on almost twenty camps throughout the whole year, and because Barretstown cover the costs of travel, accommodation, food, medical care and activities for all the families and children, their annual costings come to about €4.5 million. If you can help out with fundraising in any way, please go to the How You Can Help section of the website. Finally, if you’re considering volunteering your time as a cara, stop considering it and just do it! I only wish I’d kept a journal or at least written this post as soon as I got home because I’ve left out so much. It is quite simply the most fun and rewarding time you’ll ever have; I can promise you won’t regret it.