Orla McIntyre looks in on her little son Darren as he sleeps. There’s a smile on his face and Orla knows what he’s dreaming about.
Darren McClelland was born with a spinal injury that left him paralysed from the neck down.
Darren will turn 14 next month but in the middle of March he was treated to something that he only ever experienced when he closed his eyes, went to sleep and dreamt.
Darren is a pupil in St. Brigid’s College in Carnhill. A group called, ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ operate within the school and their main objective is develop relationships between the college and the local community. Last year, ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ set the wheels in motion to help to make Darren’s happy dreams become a reality.
After countless phone-calls, emails and letters, ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ succeeded in sending Darren, his mum, his grandmother Rachel McIntyre, sister Shanice and two nurses Aileen McDevitt and Sylvia Kilgore to Anfield where they all got to meet world famous players like Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Liverpool F.C. manager, Brendan Rogers.
“It was a dream come true for me,” smiles Darren.
“I watch all of the Liverpool F.C. games at home but I never thought I would ever get to meet Stevie [Steven Gerrard] - he is my favourite player of all time.
“I love coming to St. Brigid’s College - I have a lot of friends and they all look out for me. In the lead up to the day I knew I was going to meet the Liverpool F.C. team all of my friends in class were asking to get them autographs - it was a lot of fun,” smiles Darren.
Orla was made aware of what ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ were doing as far back as November last year and whilst she wanted to keep the news as a surprise for Darren she felt she had to tell him.
“Darren is unable to do many of the things that other teenagers are able to do and as a result he was feeling a little down towards the end of last year. I wanted to keep the Liverpool F.C. news as a surprise but I decided to cheer Darren up by telling him.”
Just as Orla finishes explaining why she told her son he would be meeting his heroes, little Darren’s eyes light up.
“I wasn’t able to think about anything else but meeting Liverpool F.C.,” remembers Darren.
“It was crazy knowing I was going to meet them someday but the only thing was, I didn’t know when it was going to happen.”
Three days after watching his beloved Liverpool F.C. beat Manchester United 3-0 at Old Trafford from his bed in Shantallow Avenue, Darren met the team, including his favourite player and all time hero, Steven Gerrard.
“It was the best day ever. I met all of the players, they chatted to me and I even got my photo taken with them all. I got them all to sign my Liverpool F.C. hoody, my lunchbox and my Liverpool F.C. notebook.
“Stevie [Steven Gerrard} was really nice and my mammy got her picture taken with Jordan Henderson - I think she had a wee bit of a crush on him,” grins Darren.
Secretary of ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’, teacher and fellow Liverpool F.C. fan, Liam McAteer said he was convinced Darren’s visit to Anfield had played some special part in the team’s remarkable form this season.
“I am always talking to Darren about football - in fact I had him tortured before he went with requests for autographs.
“Since Darren met the Liverpool F.C. team they have been in the form of their lives and it would be no surprise at all if they were to go on and win the title this year - I think that it has a lot to do with the fact the players saw their number one fan’s smile,” says Liam happily.
Darren’s condition requires him to have round the clock care; he has to have two trained adults with him at all times.
Accommodation is very important to Darren and his family when they go travelling. When Darren’s mother was told about what ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ had organised for her son she started to think about where they were going to stay but she didn’t have to worry as the group managed to arrange for Darren, his family and carers to stay free of charge in Zoë’s Place - a specialist hospice for young children in Liverpool.
“One of the members of ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ is Pat Carlin, she is the Aspire NI co-ordinator at the school and she knew Lord David Altman,” says St. Brigid’s College Head of Learning, Gerry McMonagle.
“Pat just rang Lord Altman and explained to him what we were trying to do and he pulled all of the strings to make sure Darren and everyone else had a proper place to stay when they were there.”
The generosity towards Darren and his family didn’t stop there. Stena Line paid for everyone to travel from Dublin to Holyhead on one of their ferries and after Darren finished meeting with the Liverpool F.C. team he was treated to a guided tour of Anfield and was also allowed to watch the team during a training session.
Darren’s grandmother, Rachel, isn’t one to pass an opportunity by, Hilariously, on the day the family met the Liverpool F.C. she pretended it was her birthday in order to receive a few kisses on cheek from some of the players.
“You really couldn’t make it up,” laughs Orla. “My mother was receiving kisses from all of the players, she pretended it was her birthday - she was in her element.”
The day little Darren McClelland met with Liverpool F.C. will stay with him, his mother, his sister and his grandmother forever. It’s precisely because of the generosity and kindness shown towards her son that Orla made a point of thanking everyone for what they had done.
“I can’t thank people enough for what they did for Darren,” smiles Orla.
“Since we have come home he hasn’t stopped talking about anything else and when I check up on him during the night there’s a big smile on his face - it’s obvious he’s dreaming about that special day in March,” says Orla emotionally.
“I have to send a special thanks to Altnagelvin Hospital for allowing the two nurses, Sylvia Kilgore and Aileen McDevitt to come with us. Aileen is a Manchester United supporter but I think after meeting the Liverpool F.C. players she might be converted.”
Local groups like Galliagh Women’s Group, Greater Shantallow Area Partnership and Leafair Community Group helped ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ to raise in excess of £2,000 and thanks to the generosity of others not all of the money was spent but Gerry McMonagle says the money left over will go towards helping someone else.
“Even though I am a Manchester United supporter and it pains my heart to think about Liverpool F.C. all I have to do is look at the smile on Darren’s face to know what we did was well worth it.
“We, at St. Brigid’s College are delighted to have played our part in making this happen because Darren is such a lovely boy and he deserves it.
“There is money left over from the fundraising so ‘The Friends of St. Brigid’s’ will meet again soon and do it all over again for someone else,” he says happily.