A children’s party was held today to mark a milestone for the Butterwick Children’s Hospice. Peter Barron joined in the fun…

THERE are balloons, a bouncy castle, cupcakes, hotdogs, and a smiley clown called Marko, spinning multi-coloured plates. To anyone popping their head round the door, it might look like just another children’s party.

But this is a very special party, with the VIP guest-list made up of families whose lives have been touched by the Butterwick Children’s Hospice.

The children’s hospice was opened 20 years ago this week by Take That star Gary Barlow following a campaign by The Northern Echo in memory of Princess Diana, who had been killed in a Paris car crash.

At the time, the North-East didn’t have a children’s hospice – the foundations had been laid at the Butterwick Hospice but there were insufficient funds to complete the job. The paper responded to the Diana tragedy by launching the appeal and readers responded with overwhelming generosity.

Since then, countless families have benefited from the priceless care provided by the specialist children’s unit at Stockton.

Shirley Donnelly, of Billingham, lost her 13-year-old son, Josh, in February and will never forget the support she received from the Butterwick team. Josh had been ill from birth, with Down’s Syndrome and complications, including epilepsy. As his condition worsened, he went into the children’s hospice for weekends and the occasional night, and that’s where he died.

“We couldn’t have made it through the last 13 years without the Butterwick – it’s as simple as that,” says Shirley, smiling as she watches children playing on the bouncy castle at The Synthonia Suites, in Billingham.

“I didn’t want him to go there at first but, once he’d been a few times, I saw the value. The staff are fantastic, always just a phone call away whenever you need support, and I can’t thank them enough.

“I think about Josh every day but on a day like this – the 20th anniversary – he’s in our thoughts more than ever.”

Tracy and Carl Parkinson are also at the party with their severely disabled son Reece, 17, and his sister Abbie. Reece, who suffers from cerebral palsy and has to be fed through a tube in his stomach, has gone to the children’s hospice for respite care for ten years. Every year, the support from the hospice allows his mum and dad to take Abbie on holiday and enjoy the things other families take for granted.

“I can’t imagine what life would be like without the hospice,” says Tracy. “Reece loves it. He’s got to know everybody, and you can see him relax because he’s among friends.”

Another VIP guest at the party, Ben Edmundson-Brown, ten, of Easington Colliery, suffers from a genetic condition so rare that only eight people in the world are known to have it. Born 10 weeks prematurely, he can’t walk, talk or eat.

Ben’s family, who are fundraising to build him a specially-adapted bedroom downstairs at home, get 26 nights of respite care a year from the Butterwick.

“It’s bitter-sweet because there are always tears when we leave him because he’s such a big miss,” says his step-dad Peter. “But it allows us to do things as a family we couldn’t do otherwise – like go to the cinema with Ben’s sister, Sophie.”

As Peter talks, a broad grin breaks out on Sophie’s face as she spots the arrival of another star guest she’s met before. It’s Beau, a handsome English Setter, owned by retired Darlington police officers Chris and Pauline Brown. Beau recently clocked up his 150th visit to the hospice as a PAT Dog, and Sophie hugs him like an old friend.

Out in the garden, Community Police Officers Mick Beals and Rachel Shepherd are allowing children to sit in their patrol car so they can make the siren sound and the blue light flash. There are times when you can’t hear yourself speak but that doesn’t matter because the kids – some of them patients and some the children of hospice staff – are having fun.

Meanwhile, young ones are also eager to get a glitter tattoo at Pauline Fenwick’s make-shift stall. Her partner Steve’s mother, Vera Casey, died last November of brain cancer but she found comfort from the tai chi lessons she had during respite visits to the hospice. The free glitter tattoo service is Pauline’s sparkly way of saying thank you.

Indeed, everywhere you look, thank yous are being said as families enduring unimaginable hardships mix with people they’ve come to trust – the hospice staff who’ve made their lives bearable.

Sadness may never be far away but today is a happy day – because it’s a celebration of an extra special birthday party.