FOR two decades, Barretstown has been delivering its own unique bit of magic to sick children.
Described by parents as a "lifeline", the Co Kildare facility has helped thousands of children over the past 20 years. It provides essential therapeutic recreational programmes for sick children and today will be visited by President Michael D Higgins as it celebrates its 20th year in operation.
Two-hundred of the 27,000 patients who have visited the facilities over the years will greet the President and help him to mark International Childhood Cancer Day.
Kildare native Karen O'Neill first visited the facilities five years ago after she was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was just 16 years old. Yesterday she described her stay there as a life-altering event.
"My parents say they dropped off a different child than they picked up.
"It was literally the greatest experience of my life," she said.
Founded by Hollywood actor Paul Newman in 1994, Barretstown has been providing residential camps for children with cancer ever since. Last year it extended its services to other seriously ill children.
Karen – who has just celebrated her 21st birthday – was so inspired by the treatment she received there, and in hospital, that she vowed to give something back.
She is now a second-year medicine student in Trinity College and has returned as a volunteer to Barretstown on several occasions.
Unlike her college friends, Karen said she had "no desire" to spend her summers travelling and would rather spend her free time volunteering at the camps.
"I started volunteering in 2012, and I am going back there this summer to work again. I met the most incredible kids.
"It's such a positive place, nothing will bring you down when you are there. You kind of forget, and just live your life," she said.
Barretstown provides the residential camps free of charge to children and their families, and it requires €4.5m a year for it to remain in operation.
"I would be absolutely devastated if people weren't donating to help Barretstown. It is part of children's treatment. It would be so upsetting," Karen added.