I never set out to volunteer or donate my time to a good cause writes Kasia Uscinska. It kind of just happened. But if an opportunity doesn’t come your way may I suggest you seek one out. I work as a PD in history, arts and science programming but some of my most fulfilling projects have been outside of the TV world. There are some amazing experiences to be had, I know I’ve had my share. If you have been thinking about giving of your time and skills maybe my story will inspire you.
Back in 1999 I got a call from a very suave-voiced Concorde pilot inviting me to Florida. How could a girl refuse? But we wouldn’t be going alone. In fact the holiday wasn’t for us at all but for 192 sick and disabled children. My services were required to film the trip and produce a 2-hour video for the kids. That first trip blew me away. Never had I met so many incredible children or generous volunteers. What I didn’t realize at the time is that 17 years later I would still be involved with this charity.
So what’s it all about?
Dreamflight is the charity; its mission is to change lives by giving deserving children the experience of a lifetime. Every October dozens of kids arrive at a hotel near Heathrow airport for the start of an amazing 10 day trip. There are tearful goodbyes as parents hand over their precious wards to the charity guardians. This is strictly a holiday for the kids. Families get some well earned respite from care duties while the children get to experience life beyond the confines of serious illness. Cancer, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, heart problems, kidney failure, birth defects…the list of conditions these kids are battling is astounding. An army of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and other non-medical volunteers provide the 24 hour care needed during the trip.
The kids, aged between 8 and 12, come from every corner of the UK and Northern Ireland and are placed into 12 regional groups: ‘The Marvels’ (the West of Scotland), ‘Shrek’ (Wales), ‘The Simpsons’ (the East of England), ‘Goofy’ (the Midlands) you get the picture. Each group has their own camera operator. Our job is to document the kids’ every moment, first off is a big party hosted by Dick and Dom. It’s wonderful to see how many kids are keen to strut their stuff on the dance-floor, particularly those that might be in wheelchairs or have other physical impairments. Some, of course, are nervous and anxious, this is their first time away from families and home. However hard you try to engage them they sit quietly in the corner refusing to join the party. But after years of experience I know that by the final night those same kids will be performing in front of crowds, cracking jokes and have a renewed self-confidence.
Equipment and filming
The 12 camera crew have a wide variety of experience. We have everyone from DOPs (Jon Boast is a long-term supporter too) to kit-room assistants. The requirements are being able to shoot and edit and importantly interact with the kids in a genuine and sensitive manner. Riding rollercoasters and wearing fancy dress is non-negotiable. Everyone is equipped with Canon XF105s. The charity owns 6, the rest are lent by The London Camera Company and ProCam. We have top-lights, CF cards, mono-pods, rain-covers – everything that’s necessary. Every evening we download our footage onto hard-drives before backing it all up onto a specially built NAS drive. That way not a frame will be lost. I generally film the trip in an observational style catching things as they happen. I want the kids’ reactions, the fear as they face something new and the resulting joy and excitement when they conquer it. Because there are 16 children in each group it is important to ensure equal coverage. It can be easy to focus on the loud characters or those that play up to camera but we’re not here to make TV. Our purpose is to follow every child’s journey and the relationships they forge with both other children and the adults. I get little pieces to camera with the kids about what they’re doing, they enjoy having their 5 minutes of presenter stardom. I remember one boy who insisted on doing a David Attenborough and popping out from the bushes to talk about dolphins. However I also shoot proper interviews with each child and adult. This way the parents get to know exactly who these people are that their kids come home talking about.
What’s it like to film so many kids? Most are intrigued by the camera and want to have a go. I always explain how it works and let them try their hand at filming. They love to copy and often film little interviews. Sometimes they come back with golden moments like mini weather reports for the folks back home. There’s usually a child or two who hates the camera and runs when I turn it in their direction. It can be tricky winning them round, but not impossible. Over the years I’ve discovered there are a several of things I can do. One is simply to chat and get to know them without turning the camera on. Another is give them a one-on-one camera training session, letting them explore all the strange knobs and buttons makes it all less scary. The other is to pass the camera to one of the keener kids and ask them to film their friend. A child who normally avoids the camera tends to engage more when someone their age is doing the filming. Soon enough even big old camera-op me is not that intimidating and I have a new friend.
Everything about the trip is meant to make the kids feel like VIPs. The morning after the Dick n Dom party a police escort takes everyone directly airside at Heathrow to a huge hangar where Dreamflight’s very own 747 is waiting. BA set up a mobile check-in at the hotel the day before, so passports have already been checked and bags scanned. The kids are escorted onto the plane by a marching band where the crazily dressed crew are waiting for them. This crew have all volunteered to fly the plane out, stay for the trip to look after the kids and fly everyone back at the end.
The flight is 8 hours of fun and games with silly string fights, face-painting and general chaos. We fly at a much lower altitude than normal to keep cabin pressure as high as possible for kids with breathing difficulties. First class in the nose of the plane is turned into a mobile hospital where kids can get physiotherapy, dialysis and other treatments. Upon landing the kids are greeted by a team of US volunteers who whisk them away in a convoy of buses flanked by police outriders. The main motorway to the hotel is specially closed off for the Dreamflight VIPs.
You can imagine the organization something like this takes but also how much fun it is to be film it all. The whole of Dreamflight takes over a Holiday Inn and what follows is 7 days of fantastic theme-park adventures. Each day the charity visits a different theme park: DisneyWorld, Universal Studios, Discovery Cove, Islands of Adventure…we invade them all. The evenings have parties, visits from NASA astronauts, opportunities for getting up on stage to sing, dance or tell jokes and more.
Apart from being enormous fun exactly how might such a holiday change lives as the charity suggests? A lot of these children have gone through incredible physical and mental pain. Some are depressed and despondent about their situation, understandable particularly if they’re suffering from a terminal or degenerative condition. Imagine being 10 years old knowing your muscles are wasting away so that soon enough you won’t even be able to swallow. Or what if you’re in remission from a brain tumour but worry constantly that it may return? Maybe you have a feeding tube constantly attached to your stomach and feel self-conscious. Life can seem bleak and unfair. These are just some of the things these kids face. But by treating them as much as possible as ordinary children, letting them do things the average kid does, they can conquer their fears and learn that they can attempt so much more than they previously thought.
Simple things like doing the log flume ride Splash Mountain or the Hulk rollercoaster may normally be out of reach for a wheelchair-bound kid but Dreamflight make it happen. For a child with severe cerebral palsy and little upper body strength it might mean stopping a ride and carrying her on. Adults will then sit behind and either side of the child holding her upright throughout just so that she can experience the thrills and sensations others take for granted. This is something their parents would never dare do but with medics on hand the group know what can be undertaken safely. Often the more disabled the child the more important such physical experiences are. This is why there is great emphasis on using the hotel swimming pool where kids are even taught to swim. There is also a visit to a waterpark and on the last day every child gets to swim with a dolphin. Water is the only place where physically disabled kids feel truly free and in control. They aren’t strapped into a wheelchair, the water supports them naturally. The charity has 12 Gopros as well as other waterproof cameras so we as camera crew can be right alongside the kids capturing these important events.
The Edit and Premiere
Every member of the camera crew is responsible for editing their own footage into a, at minimum, 90 minute film. We all know how much work goes into editing and this can definitely put some people off from volunteering. I remember one year taking 144 hours to edit two 2-hour Dreamflight films. The films are made into DVDs but before they are sent out to the kids each group has a reunion and a film Premiere at a local cinema. Both kids and families are invited to see the final product projected in glorious HD. I like to sit at the front of the auditorium and turn round to look at the kids’ faces as they watch themselves on the giant screen. That moment is priceless. All those hours in edit are worth it just to witness the laughter, tears, embarrassment and joy of my audience. (I’ve never had that kick with a TV show. Has anyone?) All the mums and dads, brothers and sisters get to watch how shy and nervous children blossom into confident personalities. When else do we TV folk ever get to see the true impact of something we have made on the final viewer?
By recording the trip on film the children have a powerful reminder of what they were able to achieve. They can share the holiday experience with their families who are often curious to understand why their children return home with confident new personalities. The film can also serve as a memento for those families whose children have terminal illnesses. I can personally attest to the power of these films. I remember one father coming to me after watching the footage and saying he now saw why his son had come back with a new lease on life. He said that before the trip the whole family was despondent but their son came back full of such joy that they were all re-invigorated. Kids will watch their DVD copies of the film again and again till they wear them out. These are all such huge compliments as a film-maker and are a welcome boost in the sometimes jaded world of TV. I can truly say that of the many television programmes I have made over the years this project has brought me the greatest joy and satisfaction.
If you are interested or want to know more then do drop the charity a line to firstname.lastname@example.org
Kasia is a specialist factual PD currently looking for work :