Focus: Frontline - The Willow Foundation

Anita Pati, anita.pati@haynet.com

WHAT IT IS: A national charity that offers 'special days' to people aged 16-40 with a life-limiting or life-threatening illness.

WHAT IT DOES: Provides uplifting experiences and time out from treatment by funding and organising each special day.

HOW IT'S FUNDED: Donations from companies and individuals, trusts and foundations, community fundraising, gifts in kind and in-house fundraising events.

Neil Rookes was too ill with leukaemia to know his parents were planning the day of a lifetime for him. Seven months later and largely recovered, the lifelong rugby fan was able to meet World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson (pictured with Rookes) at the England v Australia test match at Twickenham in November.

"It was absolutely unbelievable," he says of the day, which was organised by the Willow Foundation. His parents had originally seen the scheme advertised on a noticeboard at Bart's Hospital in London. The hospital's cancer support unit recommended they get in touch with the charity.

The Willow Foundation was established in 1998 by the former Arsenal and Scotland goalkeeper Bob Wilson and his wife Megs, in memory of their daughter Anna, who died from cancer just before her 32nd birthday.

Diagnosis

Rookes, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia at the age of 19 in April last year, first discovered he was ill when his rugby skills began to falter.

"I've played at Westcliff Rugby Club since I was nine and absolutely love the sport," he says. "I've been on tour with the team every year, and last year was the first time I couldn't because I became ill. I'd been feeling tired and couldn't eat, drink or go to work."

An urgent GP referral resulted in a speedy diagnosis at Southend Hospital.

Rookes was ill throughout last year, but with treatment he started to show signs of recovery by September.

Although he still felt peaky during his special day, it exceeded all expectations. Rookes and his father were picked up from their Essex home in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. Once at Twickenham, he had bangers and mash at the Scrummery restaurant and met his heroes, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson.

While there, he met another young man who made him rethink his outlook on life. "This other guy was also in a wheelchair, but he couldn't use his hands and legs," he says. "I thought: 'I've had cancer, but I've got my life back.'"

With the cancer now in remission, Rookes hopes to use his small disco business as a fundraiser and is planning an event in November with musicians Chas and Dave, the proceeds of which will be donated to Bart's and the Willow Foundation.

"It's made me realise that there are less fortunate people than me," he says. "From now, I'll try to raise money for charity."

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