'One of the best days of my life'

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steven.torrens@alphanewspapers.co.uk

IT was a day to remember for just over 100 children from Northern Ireland who are living with life-limiting conditions and illnesses as they travelled to Lapland from Belfast International Airport to meet Santa in his winter white wonderland.

The children and their families, as well as the support staff including doctors and nurses, checked in from 5am and took a 8am TUI Airways flight to Roveniemi in Northern Finland and despite the early start spirits didn’t wane as all passengers got into the festive spirit onboard the three-hour flight.

Upon arrival in Finland the all-inclusive day trip began and saw the children enjoy what is the quintessential fantasy experience at Christmas time including reindeer rides, husky dog rides, sledging, a visit to the elves workshop as well as Mrs Claus’ gingerbread bakery factory among many other activities.

The pinnacle moment for all children was a private meet and greet with Santa Claus himself after which the children continued their festive cheer theme 35,000 feet up on board their homeward bound flight.

Speaking about the day, Girda Rupsiene from Randalstown, who is the mother of eight year old Urte, said: “Travelling is such a stressful experience at the best of times but when you are travelling with a child with medical needs it becomes much more of a challenge to the point that it can be off-putting. But this trip takes away all those stresses and allows the family really soak up the entire day worry free.

“The NI Children to Lapland Trust has given our family a day that we’ll never ever forget, a memory that we’ll cherish forever.”

Daughter Urte added: “I never thought I would ever get to meet Santa in his home. Everyone was so lovely and we got to do so much. It has been one of the best days of my life.”

Father of eight-year-old Ava Gallagher, James McKernan, said: “The NI Children to Lapland Trust has given us a trip that we would ordinarily never experience. It has made Lapland and all its magic accessible to those who can't travel and for that we are very grateful.”

Daughter Ava added: “Everything about the day was fun. My favourite part was the reindeer rides and it made me feel like I was a real-life elf!”

Colin Barkley, Chair of NI Children to Lapland Trust described the 11th trip since the charity was established in 2008 as ‘a privilege’.

“This trip is something I always look forward to,” he said. “Seeing the children get excited over everything Lapland has to offer is wonderful.

“We were absolutely thrilled to have TUI on board this year. The amazing team offered their support to provide this special flight to Lapland and we’re so grateful for all the effort they’ve invested to make this trip possible.

“We would also like to thank the fantastic team at Belfast International Airport and the ground staff from Swissport who go above and beyond the call of duty every year.

“Not only do they dress up in Christmas costumes they also open all of the check in desks at 5am to ensure the children have a quick and smooth check in.

“In addition, the airport’s security team always ensures a speedy transition despite the significant levels of medication and medical equipment that is required for this flight, which is essentially a flying hospital!

“It would be remiss of us not to also mention our wonderful ground handlers in Lapland, Wild Nordic, who play a critical role in this trip.

“They have been working with us since the charity was established over 10 years ago and are responsible for the land arrangements which are tailor made to suit the complex needs of the children.

“There is no better Christmas gift to give and on behalf of the children we would like to say a huge heartfelt thank-you to all involved!”

Uel Hoey Business Development Director at Belfast International Airport, said: “We are extremely proud to partner with this amazing charity and TUI to make this trip a truly memorable experience for all of the children.

“We have worked with the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland and Days To Remember Trust for many years and we look forward to welcoming these very important passengers every year as they head off for some magical adventures in Lapland.”

Every child on the trip is nominated by a Northern Ireland health care professional, many of whom travelled on the flight and helped escort children and their families around the resort. While in Rovaniemi an ambulance in the resort and the hospital in the area are made aware of the NI Children to Lapland Trust trip and the nature of the flight. This year’s flight was made possible with the help of Northern Ireland’s leading travel provider TUI.

Charlotte Brenner, Marketing Manager at TUI Ireland said: “We are delighted to be able to support the charity and ensure that the children are able to enjoy the magic of Lapland this year. It is amazing to see so many people come together and do their part to make this special day happen. This trip is such a fantastic experience for these young people and we are delighted to be involved.”

Established in 2008 the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland and Days To Remember Trust has transported over one thousand terminally ill and life-limited children, to Santa Park in Roveniemi, the official hometown of Santa Claus on the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Finland.

For further information on NI Children to Lapland and Days To Remember Trust please visit www.niclt.org

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