Video: ‘A kind of freedom’ - BBC astronomer inspires sick children to reach for the stars

Mark Thompson, Stargazing LIVE presenter and patron of Reach for a Star, presented telescopes to young oncology patients at the NNUH. Mark and 4 year-old Archie Grimmer look for the stars.
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY Mark Thompson, Stargazing LIVE presenter and patron of Reach for a Star, presented telescopes to young oncology patients at the NNUH. Mark and 4 year-old Archie Grimmer look for the stars. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Wednesday, November 6, 2013
6:00 AM

They are the gifts which offer a glimpse of distant galaxies, and the chance to explore the night sky. But to the children who receive them, they mean the world.

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Reach for a Star

Reach for a Star was founded by James and Claire Lewis after their son, William, pictured, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in February 2012, aged just four.

The news turned the family’s life upside down, as they were carried on a whirlwind of clinical appointments and hospital visits between Norwich and Cambridge – an experience his father describes as “discovering a world unknown to us”.

But it was on those late-night trips to Addenbrooke’s Hospital that William, too, discovered a world unknown to him: space and the stars.

“He became fascinated by the stars; they fired his imagination,” said Mr Lewis, 37.

“He just had a sense of wonder about them, being up late at night on those dashes to Addenbrooke’s.

“It gave him something to fight for, and showed him that he could do something.”

William’s family had seen the impact of his diagnosis on their family, and saw it echoed in the lives of others they came to know.

In June 2012, Reach for a Star was founded, to support those families and fund specialist equipment for children.

But having seen how his small telescope had inspired William, the charity decided to hand out telescopes to other sick children: 12 at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn last year, and 20 at the N&N yesterday, with the promise of more to come.

Mr Lewis, of King John Avenue, King’s Lynn, has ambitions for the charity to develop nationally, and hand out telescopes at a different hospital each year. He added: “William gets stronger every day and, as he does, Reach For a Star grows beside him.”

Norfolk astronomer Mark Thompson visited sick children in Norwich to hand out telescopes donated by a children’s charity, in the hope of giving them a chance to reach for the stars.

The Stargazing Live presenter visited the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital as a patron of Reach for a Star, a King’s Lynn-based charity set up to support families affected by childhood cancer, which uses stargazing as a way of bringing them together and offering an outlet from the illness that dominates so much else in their lives.

It was set up in June last year by the parents of William Lewis, a five-year-old boy who fell in love with the stars during long late-night trips to hospital.

Mr Thompson said: “Astronomy can offer a kind of freedom, and a release from the day-to-day they have to deal with.

William Lewis, the inspiration for the charity Reach for a Star, set up by his father James.William Lewis, the inspiration for the charity Reach for a Star, set up by his father James.

“Lots of children don’t have that opportunity, so it’s nice to be able to give them that chance.

“The charity does a wonderful thing by giving children with a hard life something to get a little bit of joy from.”

Mr Thompson, who is also the president of the Norwich Astronomical Society, recalled how he fell in love with the stars as a child, and hoped that the telescopes handed out yesterday could spark that passion in other young hearts.

“I saw Saturn through a telescope aged 10, and it blew my mind,” he said.

Telescope treat for space-mad Archie

Space-loving four-year-old Archie Grimmer was on the holiday of a lifetime – visiting the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral Florida – when he was diagnosed in May.

A simple cough for which he had been prescribed antibiotics had refused to clear, and when his condition deteriorated, his mum Lindsey George took him to the doctor.

“They did an X-ray over there and found a tumour in his chest which had collapsed his lung and caused the cough,” said the 28-year-old, of Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich.

Doctors immediately began treatment on Archie, delaying his return to the UK by a fortnight. Once back at home in Aerodrome Road, Archie’s treatment continued at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

After a gruelling round of chemotherapy, Archie is now in remission. He has even been able to start going to school alongside classmates at Hillside Avenue Primary, though he will continue receiving treatment until January.

Miss George said her son was looking forward to seeing the stars himself using his new telescope. “He loved it when we went to the Kennedy Space Center and saw all the rockets and shuttles, and he’s really interested in the stars and planets. He loves days like these.”

“It totally and utterly captured my imagination. I’ve seen better images since, but I still remember it so clearly.

“I know what children can get out of looking at the stars.”

Reach for a Star was set up to support the families of children affected by serious illness, helping them to face their futures with dignity and hope.

James Lewis, the charity’s chairman, said encouraging children’s interest in astronomy had a serious aim.

“It’s something that allows the families to spend time together: everyone can do, and it gives the children a sense of freedom,” said Mr Lewis.

“You talk to children about these things, but usually they’re in bed by the time the stars come out.

“With his telescope William has seen the bands on Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the moon in detail.

“The families are under such a burden. This is a chance for them to spend quality time together.”

Among the budding astronomers yesterday was Reepham five-year-old Daniel Warne, just eight weeks after the latest operation on a brain tumour he was diagnosed with at 11 months old.

He said: “I’m going to use the telescope to look at rockets. I want to see the rockets blast off into space to Mars.”

His father, Steve, said Daniel had been excited at meeting Mr Thompson and using his new telescope.

He added: “Over the years Daniel’s had a lot of time in hospital and a lot of time off school. He’s been through two rounds of chemotherapy, but whenever we have been here the staff have always been brilliant.”

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