Hitchin: Up Close with the brilliant Willow Foundation

By Layth Yousif

14th Apr 2022 | Local News

Hitchin Nub News aims to support our community, promoting shops, businesses, charities, clubs and sports groups.

We showcase some of these businesses, organisations and interesting individuals regularly in a feature called 'Up Close'.

For today's Up Close article we are showcasing the incredible work the Willow Foundation do in Letchworth, across North Herts and beyond. 

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Many Nub News readers will be aware of the incredible work the Willow Foundation do in supporting people who are going through extremely tough times - not least because the amazing charity has a shop in our town centre. 

The charity was founded in 1999 by Arsenal legend Bob Wilson and his wife Meg as a lasting memorial to their daughter, Anna, who died of cancer aged 31.

Anna battled her cancer for five years but it was during these years that she, her family and friends, experienced some of their most memorable moments together. 

Her self named Special Days became a focus for quality of time and quality of life, providing a welcome distraction from the challenging realities of living with a serious and life-threatening illness and restoring some normality back into all their lives.

Willow has aimed to replicate the benefits of Anna's Special Days by providing similar positive, motivating and uplifting experiences for other seriously ill young adults.

Thanks to the generosity of so many people over the years since 1999, Willow has fulfilled more than 17,000 Special Days for young adults living with life-threatening conditions such as cancer, motor neurone disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Huntington's disease.

So, read on for our interview with Willow's Maria Alexander, who explains more about this brilliant charity and what it means to work for them

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"Willow is all about giving people with serious illness in the age bracket 16 to 40 a special day," explains good-natured Maria in discussion with Nub News.

"It's a special treat or simply gives them something to look forward to – a break from living with serious illness." 

The charity will be 23 years young this year and has big plans for 2022 after emerging from the pandemic.

As an indication of how they've grown over the decades, Maria says that in their first year Willow hosted 17 special days - now they hold an average of a thousand special days a year. 

"We wouldn't be able to keep going," says Maria, "if it wasn't for the incredible support from people who've had special days and see the value of them by helping to donate, as well as getting involved in special fundraising events. 

"We talk to every single person who has had a special day and we try and get feedback to ensure we can make those Special Days as good as they can be." 

For people living with a life-threatening illness, every day is precious. The pressures of diagnosis, treatment and recovery can have a devastating effect on work and family life.

Willow aims to redress the balance by providing unique and unforgettable Special Days tailored to individual needs. They make every effort to ensure a stress-free, seamless experience, not just meeting but exceeding expectations every single time.

For some a Special Day is their last chance to fulfil a dream, for others, it provides the opportunity to simply return some normality back into their lives or mark the end of treatment and a new beginning.

But for all, a Special Day creates treasured memories at the most difficult of times.

As a relatively small charity, with a base in Welwyn Garden City and a shop in Letchworth town centre, Willow cast their net wider in a bid to raise further awareness.

Maria says: "We've also got schools involved, we've got communities involved, we organise our own events, so it's a whole big team effort to make sure we can keep providing those special days."

It's clear to see what the inspirational Willow means to so many people on so many levels. 

But let's hear what it means to passionate Maria, who shares her experience. "I've been working for Willow for nearly four years," she says, "and when I first joined, I didn't really fully appreciate just how important our work is. I knew what we did was important of course, but to see it in action was incredible. 

"Now having been here for four years, and talking to so many people who have had a special day, and getting that feedback and getting to know people who have come back to do fundraising for us – I have to say it is certainly not just about a fun day out. 

"It's a lifetime of positive memories, a last opportunity to spend with a loved one. It's an opportunity to bring a family back together who've gone through tough times. And the power of that: well, it simply makes it all worthwhile. 

"When you hear someone with a life-limiting serious illness say to you that their special day out meant more to them than their honeymoon…" she says trailing off, before adding with typical good humour, "And when you get past the line about 'well, perhaps you married the wrong person,' the person replied: 'You don't understand, when you have a serious illness you fall. 

"You fall so hard and so far – and Willow just picked me up and pushed me back up and gave me the strength to carry on.'"

Maria concludes, her voice full of emotion that makes our throat catch: "So, when you hear that, when you ask what the job means to me, when you see the hell that people are going through - then if you can make it just that little bit better, and give a small light at the end of the tunnel for people, then why wouldn't you do that?"

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Willow is the only national charity working with seriously ill young adults aged 16 to 40 to fulfil uplifting and unforgettable Special Days. 

PS: Nub News regional editor Layth and his partner Faye will be fundraising for the brilliant Willow by running the Edinburgh half marathon at the end of May, with every single penny raised going to Willow. If you would like to sponsor/donate please click here

If you are thinking about fundraising for Willow please contact Maria Alexander for more information 01707 259 777 or email [email protected]

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