Scores of sick, disadvantaged and seriously ill children from across the UK left their families behind and conquered their fears on a once-in-a-lifetime sunshine holiday in America.
Some 192 children spent 10 days in Florida on the annual Dreamflight trip, having been nominated by doctors, healthcare teams and social workers from around the country.
The youngsters – some of whom require round-the-clock attention – visited the likes of SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Disney World during an all-adventure tour of the Sunshine State.
For many, the excursion represented the first time away from home, with dozens of medics among the volunteer chaperones during the holiday.
As a final treat, the children were given the opportunity to swim with dolphins at Discovery Cove in Orlando.
Several of the youngsters were carefully lifted from their wheelchairs to get into the water, where instructors and carers helped them get up close with the mammals.
Emma Smith, 13, from Stockton-on-Tees, said being on Dreamflight seemed impossible a year earlier.
She said: “It’s difficult to sum up how good Dreamflight has been because we have done so much.
“Obviously I was a bit nervous at first, I was worried I would think about my mum a lot of the time, that I would miss my family. But it’s been totally fine. I’ve been having too much fun.
“To think I was in hospital last year and now I’ve been to America and been on loads of rollercoasters – despite being a scaredy cat – it’s been … well, just wow. Incredible.”
Her new friend, Eilidh Hallett, 13, from Richmond in North Yorkshire, said: “This has been really nice to meet someone who has been through the same thing as me, everybody understands everybody else and you don’t have to keep going over explaining what it is that is different about you – people just get it.
“There has not been much time to think about troubling things – it’s been one fun activity after another with people who have become your friends.
“When it all happens (the treatment) you don’t realise how quickly things can change – like Emma, last year I was in hospital and now I’ve just had the experience of swimming with a dolphin. I didn’t think that would have been possible a year ago.”
Another Dreamflight participant, 12-year-old Amar Chidziva, from Canford Heath in Dorset, said: “I remember getting the letter to say I was being invited to Dreamflight, and I thought ‘That’s a bit random’.
“This has been my first time abroad and my first time on my own away from my family like this – I’ve done things I never thought possible in my lifetime.
“But it has been really cool making friends. Even though this is a holiday, I have been trying to stay healthy, eating a lot of salad every day rather than fries.”
The charity is celebrating its 32nd year, having been supported by the late Princess of Wales for its maiden flight, while a host of celebrities including Ryder Cup-winning golfer Ian Poulter, entertainer Sir Cliff Richard, and Saturdays singer Una Healy have all given up their time to help out.
Charity founder Pat Pearce said: “I started this charity as a bit of a drunken bet all those years ago.
“Now, 32 years on, I look around and I’m really proud to see a charity that keeps going year after year, supported by very kind people, and features only one person drawing a salary. Not many charities can say that, and it is down to the generosity of the volunteers and those who help fund Dreamflight.
“I don’t have my own children, but I come here and feel like a parent and a friend to each of the 192 kids on Dreamflight.
“I handed over the reins to a full-time director a couple of years ago, which means I can now focus less on the operational side of things and spend more time sitting with the children, listening to their stories and seeing how people’s money is helping.”
The whole trip costs around £800,000 and covers everything from a chartered British Airways jet to three meals a day.
This year, British Airways crew members raised £150,000 through a series of charity events, including a swim from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco mainland.
Dreamflight organisers are hoping to raise further funds to support future holidays through the release of a charity single, written by musician Ollie Wade, inspired by his time volunteering on the expeditions.
The record, titled Fly Away, will be released on iTunes, Spotify and other major platforms on November 2, and features backing vocals from the City Academy Songbirds Choir.
For more information on the charity and Discovery Cove, visit Dreamflight.org and Seaworldparks.co.uk.