Making dreams come true for children with life-threatening illness and disability
My name is Avril Mills and I am the founder for the children’s charity The Dream Factory. Life has had many ups and downs and I’d like to take you on my journey.
I lived most of my young life in Essex. My dream when I was a little girl was to be an air-hostess or an ice skater. I came from a working-class Jewish family and worked in the film and television industry for 17 years. Sadly, I stopped working in the industry when my beautiful son became ill.
I have been blessed with three children: Emma, Oliver and Joshua. These three have brought so much joy to my life, but those we love have a hold over our hearts and, one day, my world was turned upside down. During a routine gym class, I noticed bruising on Oliver’s hand and that his eyes were bloodshot. Like every mother, I was extremely concerned and went straight to the doctors who then sent us to Harlow hospital for blood tests. In a matter of hours was all it took for the doctors to confirm that, at the tender age of three, Oliver had leukaemia. The news was like a punch in the gut, Oliver’s Dad and I were left feeling completely powerless. I wanted nothing more than to take the illness for myself and leave my handsome Oliver unharmed. As it happened, nothing could change the fact that Oliver had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
We were then transferred to Barts hospital in London to the paediatric oncology unit, where we spend the next four weeks, with both Oliver’s father and I by his side. He underwent initial chemotherapy treatment and was so brave in the face of this cruelty, but it hurt me so much to see him go through so much pain whilst his body weakened. For two years, he fought hard and we got the news that he was in remission. Relieved and overjoyed, bliss fell on our family once more as we planned our future together.
Sadly, life doesn’t always have a fairy tale ending. In the 6 years afterwards, Oliver relapsed 3 times and, each time worse than the last, the rollercoaster would start again. The chemotherapy, as devastating as it was to his fragile body, would help him recover but a relapse was always around the corner. Total body radiation and an eventual bone marrow transplant was the next step on his awful journey. The pain in his eyes was something that no mother should have to see. The transplant worked, but after six weeks Oliver contracted an infection and sadly my angel passed away on 14th September 1999 at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
In his memory, I founded The Dream Factory Children’s charity.
During his time in hospital, one moment will stay with me forever. I saw another little boy, bravely suffering in much the same way as my own son, and I was inspired to ask him “if you could have a dream, what would it be?” He replied: “I would love to meet some Arsenal players”. I made it my mission to grant what could be his final wish and managed to get him some match tickets and a visit from some of the players. My Oliver’s response was that, when he grew up, he wanted to grant wishes just like his mum. Whilst Oliver never did grow up, I like to think that he lives on through my work today for The Dream Factory.
Oliver’s illness meant that I had to stop work, which was crippling financially. Oliver’s sister naturally felt neglected from the lost attention from the weeks and months I spent at Oliver’s side. It is easy to forget, but having a child with a long-term illness affects the whole family and none more than siblings who may not fully understand why their parents can’t be there for them. The whole episode has given me a sense of perspective and empathy which I put to good use now in running the charity.
The Dream Factory aims to brighten lives and encourage hope for children and young adults aged between 3 and 25 years who have life-limiting or life-threatening conditions and/or severe disabilities. We do this by granting their dreams and wishes and, over the last 12 years, we have delivered 496 and counting.
Each dream is unique to the child and can be anything from an Ipad to a ride in a limousine to much more. When Oliver was ill, another charity took us to Disneyland Paris and it gave us such happy memories in a time of little laughter. It took our minds away from the blur of hospitals, blood transfusions and injections and replace them with special moments.
For example, one child we helped was Isaac, who is severely disabled. This little boy dreamed of flying high in a helicopter above London and loved music. We chauffeured Isaac to a special mansion where he got to see how a recording studio worked and then took him on his flight over London. The smile on his face took me back to my own memories or the time my family was granted a dream.
I am always concerned for volunteers and employees in the charity. Inevitably, some of our incredible children and young adults do pass away and this always takes a huge emotional toll on all our dream team. It is extremely sad, especially the times when we lose the race against time to fulfil wishes before the dream happens.
However, help is always welcome in running such a meaningful charity. People can contribute by: becoming a regular donor, helping us organise dreams, sharing our story and or getting in touch with us at www.yourdreamfactory.org
It is my mission to run The Dream Factory for many many years to come and grant at least 50 dreams a year. We need to be able to show others what it means to feel alive even in their darkest moments. In my opinion, there is nothing more rewarding than helping people create precious memories with those who matter most. If you can help us, in any way big or small, please reach out and be the difference to a young person in need.