Six children with cancer from Derry and Donegal have become the first beneficiaries of an all-Ireland project to connect isolated youngsters with the disease to their schools and friends.
Cancer Connect Ireland is the brainchild of Derry cyclist Joe Barr, who, earlier this year, took on a gruelling endurance test that nearly killed him in 2012, in a bid to raise funds for the scheme.
Joe bravely completed the Race Across America this year, overcoming intense physical hardship. Now, the first fruits of his labours have passed on to six local children who suffer from cancer. Cancer Connect Ireland will work with recognised charities on either side of the border to identify isolated children with cancer and then supply the means of connecting them to their schools and friends.
To symbolise the cross-community and all-Ireland dimensions, the first six children were identified in Derry and Donegal.
Joe, who originally comes from Newtoncunningham, was determined that the first families would benefit before Christmas. His aim now is to see all isolated children with cancer across Ireland get the same service.
Speaking at the launch of Cancer Connect Ireland, Joe Barr told the six recipients of the first ipads that this was a historic day in terms of the project.
He said: “There can only ever be one first, and you are the first.”
Mr Barr told the families that he had been determined to get Cancer Connect Ireland launched in time for Christmas.
The mayor of Derry, Brenda Stevenson said she had first become aware of the project when the Derry Journal urged Derry City Council to host a civic reception to mark his achievement in finishing the race that nearly cost him his life - Race Across America (RAAM) - all to raise funds to help children with cancer stay connected to friends and schools.
But she vowed to continue her support, even after her term of office ends.
Michael McBride, who represented Donegal County Council also praised the project and offered support.
Ena Barrett, of Donegal Relay for Life and the Irish Cancer Society, said that, as an adult survivor, she knows how isolating cancer can be, adding that, if children “are given an opportunity to connect with each other, they will”.
“It’s great from the sick child’s perspective and it’s great from their friends’ perspective,” she said.
The Eglinton cyclist was inspired to set up Cancer Connect Ireland after meeting Len Forkas, founder of Hopecam USA, who was a competitor in RAAM in 2012, near the top of the Rockies - the scene of the Eglinton man’s collapse from oxygen deprivation.
Hopecam was set up to help isolated children with cancer in the USA maintain links with schools and friends.
Thanks to Joe Barr’s efforts, six youngsters with cancer from Derry and Donegal have now been given the equipment to continue their studies when they are too ill to go to school.
Lessons will be beamed into their homes from the classrooms, via cameras, and they will interact through their ipads.
Where broadband access is needed, Cancer Connect Ireland aims to provide that too.
Mr Barr told the families at the launch, that he is in talks with major companies, with a view to securing further sponsorship, and that the project would be spread across the whole of Ireland.
His efforts have been aided by Tony Culley-Foster, a Derry man who lives in Wasginton DC and who has helped secure sponsorship from Sodexho.
Joe himself hopes to line up more sponsors, and will announce details in due course.