An entire Lancashire community pulled together and reached across the world for one of their own – a young girl in need of a new leg.
Twelve-year-old Gabriella Benn, a former Forton primary school pupil with ambitions to become a paralympic athlete, was diagnosed with bone cancer in October 2013, shortly after she and her family left Lancashire for a new life in New Zealand.
Gabriella – known as Ella – had to have part of her leg amputated but now she can once again run on the beach, go to waterparks, trampoline and even ski after the kind villagers of Forton rallied together to raise funds.
The youngster amazed her family, friends and teachers by being determined to get back to sport of all sorts following her cancer treatment.
Plucky Ella even designed a special poster saying “I choose not to put dis in my ability.”
Ella had rotationplasty surgery which means her foot can now act like a knee joint, with the foot sitting in a new prosthetic limb.
She is also now competing in swim meets... She’s always trying to perfect her cartwheels and walking on her hands.
But running on the beach was a challenge too far.
Her mum Sandi, a former intensive care nurse at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, explained the new leg provided by the health service in New Zealand was fine for everyday walking, but not suited to all the kinds of sporting activity Ella relishes.
It was after learning of Ella’s condition that Forton villagers decided to do something to help, raising funds for a special prosthetic “beach/pool leg” which would enable her to run on the beach near her new home in Rolleston.
A special “Run a Leg for Gabriella” fun run and other fundraisers in Forton raised £5,000 towards the cost of the beach leg and replacement limbs as she grows.
In June the new beach leg was fitted and Ella named it Coral. It gave her back the freedom to enjoy more of the athletic lifestyle she had previously been used to.
Sandi said: “The beach leg has made a massive difference. It means she doesn’t have to hop around the poolside and at waterparks. When we go to pools with slides she can walk up the stairs to the top instead of crawling.
“She can run around on the beach, go body-boarding and mess around in rockpools. She even took it to Oz in her suitcase.”
She described how her brave daughter had not complained when she previously had to hop or crawl to get to the top of water slides: “It was so undignified although she never complained – she was happy to be able to do things like that again.”
Andrea Bookless, one of the Forton fundraisers, said: “We are all delighted she is doing so well and that what we did made a difference. People still ask about her and also when are we going to do another run!”
Sandi explained: “Ella is growing fast, just had her 12th birthday. She’s very healthy, swimming three times a week squad training, 120/140 lengths a session.
“She is also now competing in swim meets... She’s always trying to perfect her cartwheels and walking on her hands.”
And if that wasn’t enough, Ella started skiing again this winter, has been kayaking, sailing and water skiing and is now back mountain biking, with a 16km circuit no problem for her.
She is swimming in competitions against the able bodied and recently won shot put and discus contests at school, going on to represent her school in inter school competitions.
Her mum said: “Ella constantly amazes us with her strength of character, not feeling sorry for herself, wanting to move on and get on with life now. She doesn’t class herself as disabled. Occasionally she talks about life and wishes the big C hadn’t happened, but just picks herself up and off she goes again.”
Work on making the beach leg started in April last year. Ella’s growth spurt means it has already had to be lengthened once and now needs a new moulding as it is beginning to hurt her toes.
Sandi said: “We’ll get that done after Christmas. Hopefully it will last a year and then we will be buying another one! The Forton fundraiser effort raised enough for two beach legs. The remaining money is in a high interest account.”
Ella did suffer a setback last January when a scan showed a small tumour in her right lung which meant part of the lung had to be removed.
Sandi reported: “She was let out of hospital a day early as the surgeon was so impressed with how well she’d done with physio etc. They told her two weeks off school, but she went back after 10 days. They told her no strenuous exercise for four weeks, she was back in the pool after two.”
It has been good news since said Sandi, noting: “Since surgery she has had three clear CT scans and four clear x-rays of her leg. The next CT is early next year,and, God willing, that one will be clear as well.”
Ella has met paralympian swimmer Sophie Pascoe whose example has proved an inspiration to her...both athletically and on the fashion front. Her mum explained that Ella is now talking about a leg she can wear with high heeled shoes after Sophie showed her hers at a recent awards ceremony.
But that is an ambition for the future.
This week the Benn family, which includes dad Andy, the former Cockerham village policeman, has a special message for the Forton community, which they keep in touch with via email, Facebook and Skype: “Thank you all for everything you did for us even though we were so far away you’ll never know how much it meant to us, from the messages of support, fundraisers, head shaves, to the most amazing quilt that was made specially for Ella - designed by Forton schoolchildren.”
Sandi said they were thinking too of local flood victims and hopes everyone who had been affected is getting back to normal.
But most of all it is time for the Benn family to think about having a very happy Christmas. They will be spending Christmas morning with their son, grandson, daughter in law and her parents and then it will be off to the beach for the afternoon with a picnic and bodyboards.
As Sandi noted: “Ella just loves life and makes the most of it.”