Bob Wilson on the Willow Foundation’s 10,000th special day: ‘It was about trying to turn a negative into a positive’

PUBLISHED: 11:40 18 October 2013 | UPDATED: 11:40 18 October 2013

Willow Foundation co-founder Bob Wilson and his daughter Anna, who died at the age of just 31

Willow Foundation co-founder Bob Wilson and his daughter Anna, who died at the age of just 31

Archant

Days before Bob and Megs Wilson’s daughter died at the age of just 31, she told them not to let the tragedy destroy them.

"Anna said in the last week of her life: ‘Don’t let this thing destroy you now – use your experience’.
When she was diagnosed, she said: ‘We’re going to have a great time, wherever this goes’.
We were all crying at the time.
But where we are now is down to Anna and her mum."

Bob Wilson

Instead, Anna Wilson – nicknamed Little Willow by her family – urged them to use the experience of her six-year battle with cancer to help others.

It is an instruction the pair still hold close to their heart.

Within a year, the Willow Foundation had been launched in her memory at Brocket Hall in 1999.

During Anna’s illness, the couple had learned that ‘special days’ – their daughter’s included going to a Take That concert, watching Arsenal play, and shopping with her mum – had given her and her family a huge lift.

"It’s about giving people a break from their treatment, which can often be horrific. We hope to give people smiles through the tears."

Bob Wilson

As the charity prepares to offer its 10,000th special day, Bob told the Welwyn Hatfield Times: “Anna said in the last week of her life: ‘Don’t let this thing destroy you now – use your experience’.

“When she was diagnosed, she said: ‘We’re going to have a great time, wherever this goes’.

“We were all crying at the time.

“But where we are now is down to Anna and her mum.”

Sir Bob Wilson and wife Meg founders of the charity Willow Foundation. (c) Gretel EnsigniaSir Bob Wilson and wife Meg founders of the charity Willow Foundation. (c) Gretel Ensignia

Since it was launched, it has raised an estimated £20million, and made a huge difference to families in their most difficult hours.

Former Arsenal and Scotland international goalkeeper Bob said he was amazed there was nowhere offering support for adults between 16 and 40 facing life-threatening illnesses.

For the first five years, he and Megs worked tirelessly to raise funds and awareness, helping to set up special days for patients in Hertfordshire.

He said: “For the first few years it was just Megs out of a back bedroom in Brookmans Park.

“Now it’s based in Old Hatfield with around 30 staff.”

Slowly requests for help began to arrive from further afield, and the foundation soon began setting up special days for families outside the county.

“We realised it was time to think about going national,” Bob said.

“It was about trying to turn a big negative into a positive.”

With the onset of the recession, he said the climate has been tough, with the charity having to “cut its cloth” accordingly.

It had been organising up to 1,500 special days each year, but in the last four years, that number has reduced to around 1,000.

“Things are starting to look up again though,” Bob said optimistically.

Each special day costs an average of £1,200 to organise, with each patient usually accompanied by three or four family members.

“We’re looking at around half a million people who have been touched by the Willow Foundation,

“It’s about giving people a break from their treatment, which can often be horrific. We hope to give people smiles through the tears,” Bob said.

And the affection the foundation is held in is evident in the letters Bob often receives from grateful family members, recalling happy memories of their experiences.

More than 750 runners joined the annual Willow 10K run at Hatfield House two weeks ago, and Bob said he is delighted with the support the charity has achieved.

“These people are the heartbeat of the Willow Foundation,” he stated.

For part two of our spotlight feature on the charity, pick up a copy of next week’s Welwyn Hatfield Times, out on Wednesday


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