Back in 2016, finding it difficult to get out with now 2 young children under 5 as a wheelchair user myself with a life-limiting muscle wasting condition, I applied for a ‘Special Day’ via The Willow Foundation.
I’d actually known about Willow from my days of going for respite at Francis House Children’s Hospice, but wanted to wait until I was certain of what I wanted the ‘special day’ to entail. Wish granting charities are mainly for seriously/terminally-ill children, The Willow Foundation is the only one I’m actually aware of in the UK that is for adults!
If you pop to The Willow Foundation website, you’ll see such a wide variety of ‘special days’ and even weekend breaks. Most popular being meals out with family, day trips to Blackpool Pleasure Beach and meeting favourite celebrities! Although meeting the cast of my favourite Soap – Hollyoaks would of been AMAZING… I knew what I wanted more than anything was to simply take the girls to the zoo, Chester Zoo to be specific! It was such a fond memory of mine when my Dad took me before I lost the ability to walk aged 6, and I wanted to take the girls whilst they were fairly little.
Applying for your ‘Special Day’
The application process was fairly straight forward and can be completed online via their website, you will however need to print it off and have a specialist involved in your care verify your diagnosis.
It took around 3 weeks from sending off the application to receiving a phone call about my ‘special day.’ A lovely lady went over the finer details of our trip and all things access wise that’d need to be taken into consideration. It was decided, after explaining my chronic pain and fatigue that in order for me to get the most out of a full day roaming Chester Zoo with the littles that it’d be more practical to stay overnight in a nearby hotel the night prior, AND the night after.
Chester Zoo from Bolton is a good 2 ½ – 3hr drive. I can’t drive (though I’m working on it!), but that wasn’t a problem. Willow asked me to find an accessible taxi company to take us from Bolton to Chester where they’d booked a Holiday Inn accessible room. I quickly got back to them with the details of Colin Rae Transport, a Manchester based mini bus company that specifically caters for people with disabilities. All travel and accommodation was covered by Willow so we had nothing to worry about but food cost which we were very grateful of!
The Big Day
We were all up late the night before packing and double checking things, then up at 6am on the dot because there were certain things that couldn’t be packed until I’d used them for the last time the morning of E.g my medications, toileting gear and Ava’s formula and bottles needed to be all freshly washed to last the trip.
Colin arrived bang on 8am, I tell you this guy is such an incredible person. You wouldn’t believe the lengths he and his team go to make sure people get to where they need to be, from him/his team staying overnight in a nearby hotel wherever pick-up at their own expense to ensure they’re never late, to if they’re dropping someone off home and they live alone they’ll make sure the heatings on and make them a cuppa, then text their loved one to say e.g;
“Mum’s home safe and sound, got her feet up watching Emmerdale with heating on.”
The stories he shared with our family on our journey to Chester had me truly welling up. There are some amazingly kind and caring people in this world. I’ll save the rest about his company for another time. Him and the company deserve a whole post dedicated entirely to them…
Where We Stayed
The charity booked us in at the Holiday Inn A55, Chester (West) for 2 nights. A subtle hotel along the motorway a little outside Chester itself. Surrounding it was places like Costa Coffee, a greasy spoon and a gas station.
|[IMAGE: Our Accessible Interconnecting Room at the Holiday Inn A55]|
I knew the charity had allocated us an accessible room with a roll-in shower and booked a cot bed, we were planning to have Abbie in the big bed with us. But when we checked in, we had a unexpected surprise waiting! Willow had booked the interconnecting room along side one of their accessible rooms so that Abbie could have a double bed all to herself and we had much more room for the medical equipment I had to take along. It was such a lovely thought from the charity and made the world of difference that night, after walking around the zoo all day that I could just get in bed and rest, without the worry of disturbing a then 3yr old Abbie or her taking up our entire bed doing the star fish!
We’re Going To The Zoo!
The morning of our adventure began with a hearty fry up for breakfast in the hotel restaurant as part of the booking. A black cab had been booked for 10am to take us the 45mins drive to the zoo itself. The Welsh driver was absolutely lovely and was (for once..) well trained in aiding a wheelchair user in and out, while using the ramp extension that alot of taxi drivers claim they don’t know how to use.
When we pulled upto the front of Chester Zoo to be met by these ginormous giraffe, elephant and rhino cut outs, Abbie’s face lit up like a Christmas tree! She could not get out the taxi fast enough bless her. Ava was fast asleep on my lap, so we popped her in the pram with the shade over. I was trying to remember every step of the way how different the zoo is now to what I remember from my childhood. I remember Dad telling me they’d switched the entrance to the opposite side in the mid 90s somewhere. So that was definitely different but for the most part I recognised quite a lot which was lovely to reminse from area to area.
We decided not to hire one of the zoo childrens buggys because we had Ava in the pram and it was more comfortable for her, if Abbie tired she could ride on my lap.
I think pictures speak louder than words so I’ll just pop in some of my favourite snaps of our day trip.
We got to see all the main attractions such as the elephants (going to the elephant house was my favourite as a kid as still is now. Absolutely LOVE 🐘) , monkeys, giraffes including a baby giraffe! Bears, birds, flamingos (now that’s something I don’t remember seeing..), bat’s, meerkats, penguins, rhino’s, hippos… It felt like we saw SO much but yet there was so much more to see than we managed to squeeze in. Both girls absolutely loved it! Spotting all the animals, trying to navigate the map, visiting various zoo cafes, oh and we can’t forget the gift shop! Abbie had her face painted for the first time too..
It truly was as special as I imagined sharing that childhood adventure to the zoo with my own children would be and I know my Dad was watching over us too. Sadly he passed away suddenly from Cancer before I had the girls.
I want to express my sincerest gratitude to The Willow Foundation for giving our family such a simple, yet incredibly special day out together. For taking out all the stress that we usually have to juggle so all we had to do is focus on having a fun filled family outting. We’ll have these memories for a lifetime!