I first heard about Barretstown through the UCD Paediatrics Society, who helpfully have regular posts when charities contact them looking for volunteers or helpers. I had vaguely heard of Barretstown before this, but I didn’t really know what it was or who it was for. When I looked them up, I discovered that they are a ‘serious fun’ organisation, which bring seriously ill children and their families to their camp in Kildare where the children and their families can partake in therapeutic recreational activities. I had never heard of the concept before, and later found out there are very few in Europe, however they are much more common in the US and Canada. Because of their scarcity on our own continent, kids from countries all over Europe travel to Ireland for this camp!

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In Autumn and Spring, the camps are weekend camps for kids and their families, while in summer they are week long camps for children only. Before coming to camp, we each had to complete a one day course as well as an online training component to get us up to scratch on Barretstown and our role as a volunteer.

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The camp I was assigned to was 4 days long, over Halloween, for children with Haemophilia. Being a medical student in UCD, I had learned much about this illness in PreMed, however our course mainly focused on the genetic causes behind it, and the mechanism by which this leads to illness. It was extremely insightful to support this learning in college with extra-curricular opportunities such as this camp, which provided insights into the common problems experienced by those with Haemophilia and other blood clotting disorders. On our first day, before the children arrived, we were given a brief talk by the nurse on site, who told us a bit about Haemophilia, and what we had to look out for in the kids. Haemophilia is a bleeding disorder, and so with a bad fall children with Haemophilia are at higher risk of bleeding into joints or soft tissues than other children without the illness. There is a ‘Med Shed’ on site with fully qualified doctors and nurses on hand to assist with any medical issues the children had during their stay, so volunteers had no requirements to be medical students, anyone could volunteer!

The campsite itself was well kitted out, with a mini-golf course, outdoor and indoor climbing facilities, canoes and fishing rods on their own lake, a not-so-secret ‘secret’ garden, a stables, theatre, and numerous art rooms, lego rooms, photography dark rooms… etc. During the day the kids were assigned to an activity group based on their age, and each activity group would rotate through the activities. Each child was also assigned to a cottage group, who all lived together with some of the volunteers in one of the many cottages on site. Many activities also occurred with their cottage group, such as the evening entertainment and all meals. At the start of every meal time, everyone would get up and ‘dance for your food’ before the meal arrived. There would be more dancing and games after the meal too, always keeping the fun and festive atmosphere for the kids. Of course there was a special Halloween themed event, with each cottage group having to solve a number of challenges to collect clues and find their sweets! At the end of the 4 days, there was a slideshow and many tears from the campers not wanting to leave!

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It was a fantastic experience, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more great recommendations from UCD Paeds Soc in future! The kids I got to work with were a really diverse group, full of energy and always eager for one last game, and were a pleasure to work with, as were the other volunteers with me. Barretstown really go out of their way to make the camp special for these children, and I’ll be going back to volunteer with them again next Spring!

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