The Torbay charity offering a holiday of a lifetime

PUBLISHED: 08:51 08 July 2014 | UPDATED: 08:51 08 July 2014

The Jones sisters enjoying their THHN holiday

The Jones sisters enjoying their THHN holiday


The Torbay Holiday Helpers Network, which turns five this summer, offers families coping with life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses the ultimate stress-free family break, discovers GEMMA CLAPP

The Hotel de la Mer offers families in need the ultimate free holidayThe Hotel de la Mer offers families in need the ultimate free holiday

Suffering with a serious illness, whether that be your own or that of a close family member, is without a doubt a stressful and emotional time. But one local charity is offering these families the chance to fill what may be their last moments together with happy holiday memories: The Torbay Holiday Helpers Network.

Set up in 2009 by Luke Tillen, the charity has gone from strength to strength, offering fantastic, free holidays to families in need from all over the country.

The idea came to Luke while watching an episode of Secret Millionaire. The show featured a charity called Donna’s Dreamhouse and it pulled at Luke’s heartstrings.

“The couple that run Donna’s Dreamhouse - Len and Barbara - lost their daughter, Donna, to cancer when she was just 20. During her treatment she saw lots of young children going through the horrible treatments that they have to go through. She saw the impact it had on the family - something she knew only too well - and decided she wanted to create somewhere where families could go whilst they’re having these treatments - a holiday together to act as a distraction from what they were dealing with,” Luke explains.

The Flack family taking a ride at CockingtonThe Flack family taking a ride at Cockington

“Sadly, Donna passed away before she fulfilled her dream, but her parents raised enough money to buy a rundown hotel which they turned into Donna’s Dreamhouse. They give free holidays to families who have children with a serious illness.”

On the programme they featured a little boy who sadly passed away just two weeks after filming, which, as a father of one at the time (Luke now has four children), really hit home.

“Everybody knows children get ill and some sadly die. But seeing that programme was like being hit in the face with a cricket bat - it was a real life-changing moment. I just realised how genuinely lucky I was to have a healthy child, and realised that I was in a position, being a partner in the Hotel de la Mer in Torquay, to offer something back.”

Feeling inspired and determined to help suffering families, Luke contacted children’s cancer charity NACCPO and offered a free holiday at the hotel to one of the families they were working with. He also contacted local businesses to try and get the family free entry into as many tourist attractions as possible.

“My brain started to race and I thought that we could make it a regular thing if we could get other accommodation providers on board,” says Luke. Hundreds of phone calls and e-mails later, the Torbay Holiday Helpers Network was born.

August 2009 saw the Jones family from Chester head to Torquay - the first official THHN holiday. Their 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, had a brain tumour and she’d had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and three major brain surgeries, suffering from a stroke as a result of one of them which led to her having to learn to walk and talk again.

“The family were at rock bottom,” says Luke. “But they came on holiday, had a great time, and we’ve made friends for life as a result.”

It’s not just the Jones family who appreciate the THHN’s hard work and kind gestures. Feedback on their official website is full of thanks and praise, with many, like the Ralph family, saying how much joy the holiday had given them.

“Seeing the children running around on the beach, their excitement and the sheer joy in their little faces during our three-day break was wonderful. I stood on Paignton beach in the sunshine on the first day of our holiday with a tear running down my cheek, feeling such gratitude for this opportunity.”

The Ralph and Jones families are just a couple that the THHN have helped. As they approach their fifth anniversary this summer, the charity is set to have given 400 holidays to suffering families, all referred by charities, hospices and hospitals wanting to give their patients and their families a much deserved break.

Although most holidays take place in Torbay and the South West, the THHN have sent families on trips to Bournemouth, Blackpool, South Wales, and even France.

Plans for the future include accommodation for those with higher care needs. Luke and his team unfortunately have to turn away many families because the accommodation providers they have on board simply don’t have the facilities to care for them. Last January the group announced their plan to build or renovate a bungalow for this purpose, and are currently fundraising to try and reach their 
£1 million target.

“Some families need electric beds, wetrooms and hoists and we have to turn them away. It’s not nice speaking to a family when they are looking for that final getaway with their child or with a sick parent and there is nothing you can do - you know that they’re not going to get those final memories in a nice area and nice surroundings. It’s the next step, really; we want to take the charity and be able to help more people.”

The charity solely relies on fundraising and donations. This year they are the official charity for the Downs Music Festival, and family festival Wigfest has been set up as a THHN fundraiser, set to take place this August, which Luke hopes will raise lots of money.

It is hoped more local organisations will come on board to help the charity offer the holiday of a lifetime to a family in need. If you would like to find out more, visit

The THHN holiday experience

When a family arranges a THHN holiday, they can expect a relaxing, stress-free stay where their every need is catered to.

Each holiday differs depending on both the accommodation provider and, of course, the family.

Some holidays have meals included, whereas others are self-catering, but these families won’t go hungry: on arrival they will find food hampers from local businesses packed with delcious food to see them through their stay.

There are butcher’s hampers, fish hampers, delicatessen hampers, bakery hampers, cakes, fruit and vegetables - you name it, the THHN have thought of it.

If a family is struggling financially the THHN will cover all travel expenses, whether that be petrol money or train tickets.

There is also a welcome pack on arrival, filled with leaflets and brochures of local places they can visit free of charge.

They’ll also find a blank memory book where they can fill the pages with mementos from their holiday, such as photographs, ticket stubs, or children’s drawings.

On top of this, families will have a family pass to get them free entry into 30 local tourist attractions, including free beauty treatments, cinema or theatre tickets, boat trips, driving lessons, and even flying lessons down in Newquay!

Some places also offer free meals out to THHN holidaymakers meaning they have the complete free holiday package.

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