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How Sam Offers Young Patients the Wonder of Friendship – and How Disney Returned the Favour

From the street, the building housing 180 Studios on London’s The Strand looked much the same as usual.

But if you entered it between 12 and 21 May 2023, you’d have witnessed it transformed into something magical celebrating the endearing charm only Disney can conjure up.

Called Wonder of Friendship, The Experience, the pop-up event touring Europe is an immersive, enchanting array of spaces designed to celebrate iconic Disney characters and tales. Classic Disney staples – including Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Donald and Daisy Duck – frolicked, beaming down from the walls as huge, animated presences.

Guests were invited to traverse four themed rooms: each transformed into backdrops of beloved Disney worlds. And, through a combination of Snapchat, QR codes, and augmented reality, encouraged not only to watch, but participate – as technology (and love) brought the stories behind each setting to life.

There was the Alice in Wonderland Garden of Mystery. Lilo & Stitch’s Ohana Bay. The Mickey and Friends’ Wonderverse. And The Lion King’s Orchestral Oasis.

So, when Disney invited one of ellenor’s Children’s Team to join it for a day at London’s latest – and most breath-taking – immersive event, Sam Pollitt was captivated. And, when it was revealed her colleagues had nominated her for the spot, she was in dreamland.

Sam is a Children’s Care Assistant on ellenor’s Children’s Team.

Her role? Providing respite care for the parents and carers of children with complex needs and disabilities. That means Sam goes into the homes of families within the Dartford, Gravesham, and Bexley communities, and cares for the child – giving the parents, typically the primary carers, a few crucial hours to themselves.

That might be to head to the shop for a few bits. Spend a bit of quality time with their other children. Or simply catch up on some well-deserved sleep.

“I love knowing that a parent can have that time alone,” Sam says. “That time out from the round-the-clock care regime they have to provide.

“We take it for granted – that we can just pop to the shop. Those parents can’t do that. They’d have to get their child into a wheelchair or a buggy; make sure they have oxygen or machinery. For a lot of these parents, care is far from straightforward – and it’s a 24/7 job.

“Some of them are up every two hours, looking after their child – every single night.”

During that time, Sam engages with the children.

Often, that’s through sensory play – using textures like shaving foam, and stimuli like lights, music, and smells, to produce tactile and visual responses – though it could be simply sitting with the child. Other times, it’s being to these young patients – many of whom don’t go to school, or don’t get to socialise in the same way as other children their age – something they, heartbreakingly, don’t have too many of. A friend.

“I sing songs to them, or just keep talking,” Sam says, describing an average visit. “Often, we’ll just sit there and watch a bit of something on TV – but I’ll be providing a running commentary. They just like to know you’re there.”

What are they watching on TV? We can’t say for sure – but a Disney film is a pretty safe bet.

Her highlight of the day? Easy.

“The ‘Hakuna Matata’ room was incredible,” says Sam, smiling at the memory. “You walk alongside the characters – Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa – as they dance, then head into a room with swings. You have to swing in time to the music, together, to make it work. It’s the friendship side of it – operating as a team.”

As for the rest of Sam’s family, they had their own favourite rooms – for slightly different reasons!

“My daughter Lucy liked the Lilo & Stitch room best,” says Sam. “There were surfboards that wobbled when you stood on them. I have terrible balance, so my daughter – and my husband Ralph, for that matter – both got a chuckle out of the fact that I couldn’t stand up on those surfboards!”

That ellenor came to the attention of Disney is, of course, a testament. Not only to Sam, but to the work the respite team – and ellenor’s wider Children’s Team, who look after patients who are newly born, all the way up to the age of 19 – so selflessly do.

“It’s amazing for the respite team to be recognised,” says Sam. “I’m so proud that ellenor was actually noticed and recognised as a children’s hospice – as well as an adult one. People tend to think we only work with the elderly, when in fact we care for all age groups. People also only tend to think of the clinical side of hospice care – rather than the memory-making.”

Helping families make memories is, after all, what Disney does up on the big screen. But it’s also what Sam and her team do every day – in fact, it’s part of the job.

That could be through hosting afternoon teas or pumpkin-picking sessions – allowing families with children with disabilities to come together and bond. Or like in one recent Mother’s Day event, helping patients and their parents plant bulbs together in fresh soil.

“That’s actually what I love most about what I do. Making friendships with the children; being their special person. But also, being able to provide families with special memories.”

For one afternoon in May, though, Sam could take the day off – with her own loved ones – and spend a few hours away from it all in the most enchanted of settings: an immersive Disney paradise. For a bit of quality time. A bit of respite from the ordinary world.

And to make some precious memories of her own.