To millions of children he is the forest-dwelling monster whose “eyes are orange, tongue is black and has purple prickles all over his back”.
For Rainbow Trust family support worker Charlotte Coyle, the Gruffalo became a trusted companion during the Covid-19 pandemic – helping her engage with seriously ill children and their siblings during virtual play sessions.
i’s Christmas appeal 2021 is raising money for Rainbow Trust to help it continue its vital work providing families with seriously and terminally ill children with practical and emotional support, and it’s aiming to raise £125,000 so the charity can help even more families.
When Covid-19 took hold in Britain in March 2020, it was necessary for Charlotte, 29, to switch her play sessions from face-to-face to virtual as some families had to shield and protect vulnerable children from contracting the virus.
Charlotte, who as part of the South West care team has supported children aged three to 14, , virtually, said: “A few families messaged me and asked if I could organise video calls with their children so they didn’t lose the rapport we’d built up. I thought they would be 10-minute calls but I couldn’t work out how they would go.”
She held calls with a non-verbal child in hospital to help reduce feelings of isolation while emotionally supporting the child’s mother. During another video call, quick-thinking Charlotte rummaged around for a doll so she could join one young girl who wanted to wash and dress her toy babies.
Charlotte, who supports children across a region stretching from from North Devon to South Oxfordshire, said: “It’s what I’d have done if I was at her house. The break away meant her parents could have a moment to themselves, potentially do some work or attend to a sick child while their siblings were entertained.”
Freddie Gilbert was another child who Charlotte entertained via video calls. She began supporting the six-year-old – whose sister Freya, 10, has a rare inherited metabolic condition – before the first national lockdown.
The family were told to isolate and Freddie found it hard not seeing his friends. He also struggled to engage with Charlotte’s interactive sessions.
“Sometimes I’ve found siblings don’t really talk. They know I know about their brother or sister’s condition, and they know I understand.”
Keen to lift Freddie’s spirits, Charlotte tapped into her creativity and enlisted the Gruffalo. “I thought, ‘If I use a puppet, I can talk to it and the child can watch me, rather than having to interact.’ And he’s not like the Gruffalo in the story – he’s very nice and lives with me. I don’t know why I gave him a Cockney accent but I guess he’s stuck with it now,” she said with a laugh.
Freddie soon built a friendship with the Gruffalo, who set him weekly challenges such as making something that floats or creating an object with 100 plastic bricks.
When the Gruffalo celebrated his third birthday last May , Charlotte sent party decorations to Freddie’s home and organised a party over Zoom.
“Freddie was very surprised and excited to find an invitation and a party bag had been dropped off on our doorstep,” his mother Kelly, said. “Charlotte hosted an amazing birthday party, which included playing musical statues, singing, even candles and cake.”
Kelly said it was a moment of light relief during an “incredibly hard” lockdown in which the family spent 10 weeks in isolation: “Of course this [impacted] on Freddie,” she said. “But having the Gruffalo call each week gives him someone else other than me to speak to, and he even said, ‘I know if I am sad, I can talk to the Gruffalo.
“The support we receive as a family has made a huge difference to us all, especially Freddie; it’s given him a chance to not have to worry about his sister and simply have fun.”
Charlotte has provided virtual support to 18 families since the start of the pandemic. Now, as the Omicron variant takes hold, the Rainbow Trust is looking to continue its nationwide virtual play sessions. The charity has also created virtual support packs, using toys and materials so children can “create, invent and play” while exploring their emotions about themselves or their sibling being seriously ill.
Each pack contains a puppet, paper, art materials and play dough, fidget toys to relieve anxiety and boost concentration, and a journal. It also includes “small world animals and people” to enable children to reflect on their experiences and “resolve conflicts in a very safe way without complex language”.
Charlotte, who has worked at the charity for five years, said: “It’s amazing how these virtual packs meant our work never had to stop. Families in Scotland, Northern Ireland or anywhere in England outside our catchment area have still been supported, especially at a time when people were isolating and family or friends were unable to visit. But we were still there – supporting, talking and providing an outlet for social interaction, not to mention fun, play and respite.”
She continued: “I’ve tried to be the most fun and exciting person I can be and I think that’s why I’ve had such a variety of video calls. Whether I’m chatting to a teenager or I’m with a four-year-old doing a pony trek and pretending we’re camping, it’s led by them. I look at it as being their video call for what they need at that specific time.”
When a child is diagnosed with a life threatening or serious illness, a family’s life is turned upside down completely and they are often left feeling bewildered, confused and overwhelmed.
i is launching its 2021 Christmas appeal with the goal of urging generous readers to raise £125,000 to give vital practical and emotional support to families with a life-threatened or terminally ill child.
Here’s what your donation can provide:
- £3 or £5 could provide arts and crafts/activities.
- £10 could provide a memory box.
- £15 could pay for a fun day out.
- £26 would provide an hour’s support.
- £60 would provide a virtual support pack.
- £1,780 would support one family for a year.