Ahead of the Dream Ball this weekend, Muireann O’Connell chats to Ciara McDonnell about the inspiring families she has met at Share A Dream.
Muireann O’Connell is a crier. She cries at pictures of puppies and when she hears stories of people having a hard time. When I call her up to chat about the upcoming Dream Ball for the Share A Dream Foundation, where she’ll be presenting awards to eight children who have displayed incredible courage in the face of sickness, she’s concerned about her ability to get through the gig without losing it completely.
“On the night we will be recognising eight children and their families for their unbelievable courage. We’ll be honouring children who fight every single day of their lives just to stay alive,” she tells me. “The night is going to be pretty emotional. A lot of the audiovisuals on the night are done by the guys at Virgin Media and they have assured me that all of my makeup will need to be waterproof on the night because there is no way I’ll get through this without crying!”
With two jobs in national media, O’Connell is flying high. She starts her day at Today FM, where she fronts the lunchtime slot before whizzing over to Virgin Media and taking her place on the couch as anchor of their Six O’Clock Show. “I’m spoofing my way, most of the time,” she assures me. “I feel like the greediest person in the world, with my radio show and my television job. Every day I finish work and I think, ‘Janey I spoke to some great people today’. I am very lucky.”
She attributes her apparent seamless transition from radio to television to the teams at Today FM and Virgin Media. “I work hard, but you have no idea how many other people are working behind the scenes to make these programmes happen. At Virgin Media there are interns and researchers and producers all working round the clock to bring the best guests to three lifestyle shows a day, five days a week. It’s a machine.”
When life is being good to you, you should be good to others, believes the broadcaster. When Share A Dream came knocking, Muireann was immediately on board to help. “It’s extremely humbling,” she says of her visits to Share A Dream HQ. “These children and their families live in a cycle of treatments and hospital visits and pain. I left there thinking ‘we really don’t know how lucky we are.’
Her heart was stolen by a little girl called Nicole who is battling not one, but four different kinds of brain tumours. “You’ve never met kids like this,” she tells me. “Nicole is fighting every single day of her life, and rather than feel sorry for herself, she’s there making sure that she enjoys every day she has. I could see her almost going in her head ‘I’m going to make the most of this now, because later I might find myself in a bit of pain’.”
Now in its 27th year, the Share a Dream foundation was founded by Shay Kinsella, working with children living with life-limiting conditions and helping their dreams come true. From trips to Disneyland to concerts to much-needed respite, the foundation operates as a crutch to families coping with unimaginable stress and pain. It’s a cause that Muireann has been aware of since childhood.
“Niall, one of the guys in my primary school class is Shay Healy’s nephew, so we knew all about it from very early on,” she recalls. Back then, Shay would pay visits to the primary schools of Limerick to explain what he was trying to do, and he had a special way of explaining the foundation to young children. “He would come in and say ‘hey, I know you have a lovely life and I don’t want to take that away from you, but this is another little girl and her life is a little bit different, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could make her day a little bit better.”
As a child, she remembers being excited at the prospect of helping to send a sick child to Disneyland, but as an adult, her perception is naturally much deeper. “When I was approached as an adult, and could understand the full scope of their remit and what they have to deal with every day I was blown away,” she says. “I am in awe of how these people get up, go to work with absolutely no funding from the Government at all and go out there every day and put the hand out. And they get people to help them. I didn’t hesitate to offer my help.” Ask anyone who works with Share a Dream what motivates them and they’ll say two things: the children and families and Shay Kinsella. He is a force, according to Muireann. “He has been doing this for 27 years and Shay’s passion is undiminished. He is still absolutely fiery about it, and I think he is probably thinking about the future and where it will take the organisation. There are so many people in there who have made it their life’s work to be there. It’s inspiring.”
When kids are sick, the whole family suffers. There’s guilt and fear and pain and endless days and nights, and often families find themselves in an illness bubble. When kids are sick, you don’t have play dates in case someone has a cold, and you don’t head out for dinner on a whim, because there might be medication to think of. The world loses its inclusivity; the whole family are affect by it. That’s why Share A Dream created Dreamland.
A literal dream come true for the foundation and the families who utilise its services, Dreamland is the first ever fully accessible and all-inclusive play centre and it’s in Limerick. The idea behind Dreamland is that all children have a right to play, and this centre of fun provides a facility for kids who are dealing with disabilities or illness to play alongside their siblings and friends in a safe environment.
You have to see this place to believe it, says Muireann. “There are three different magical rooms where you can have your birthday party and then there is an amazing play centre with a life-size plane and a train and sensory room and a toy hospital. All children who have any sort of disability from hearing loss to being paralysed can go in for free and then children who aren’t deemed to have a disability pay a nominal entrance fee, and that’s how its funded.”
Dreamland is the perfect example of what Share a Dream is about, reckons O’Connell.
“The day I was there, all the kids were playing with each other together just having the best laugh. To see a group of children having a blast with each other with no thought to the differences between them was glorious. There was no other word for it; it was absolutely glorious.”
- The Dream Ball and National Children of Courage Awards takes place at the Radisson Blu, Limerick on Saturday November 24, 2018. Tickets are €110 each. See shareadream.ie