Family Health

'She continues to inspire us' – Ireland hockey stars Bethany and Serena Barr on marking the anniversary of their sister's death with charity fundraiser

Next year is shaping up to be an epic 12 months for Irish hockey stars and twin sisters Bethany and Serena Barr. Not only will the Lurgan girls be putting their hearts into realising their dream of Olympic glory in Tokyo next summer, but they will be working harder than ever to keep their late sister Charlene’s dream alive.

Charlene continues to inspire both girls and was foremost in their minds last month when they helped the Ireland hockey team qualify for its first ever Olympics.

As the 10th anniversary of Charlene’s death approaches in 2020, the girls, who are 24, and their family are taking on a huge project to commemorate it.

Together with their brother David (32), sisters Natalie (27) and Rebecca (30) and parents Dickie and Janice, they have launched 2020 Vision, a massive €600,000 (£500,000) fundraiser to build a secondary school in Uganda.

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Charlene, who was adopted by the family when she was a baby, was born with cystic fibrosis. At the age of 18 in 2009, she had to drop out of school when it became obvious that she needed a double lung transplant to survive.

That very same day she made the decision that since she was no longer able to go to school, she would spend her time in hospital fundraising to build a school in Uganda, so children there could get an education.

The community in Lurgan and further afield rallied round to support the teenager as – mostly from her hospital bed – she managed to raise over €144,000 (£120,000) in six months to build the Hidden Treasure Primary School in Uganda.

Sadly Charlene never got her transplant and she passed away peacefully at home in Dollingstown on October 20, 2010, surrounded by her loving family. She was 20 years old. On the day of her funeral the ground was broken in Uganda to build Hidden Treasure Primary School.

In her diaries she had outlined so many of her plans and Charlene’s Project, now run by her family, continues her legacy with educational and health work being done in with primary schools in western Uganda.

They are also working in education and income generation projects in the Kampala slums and educational projects in two Guatemalan villages as well as with Syrian refugee children in three small schools on the Jordan Syrian border.

Now, as sister Bethany explains, they have ambitious plans for next year to mark the 10th anniversary of Charlene’s death: “There are 6,500 children in the primary schools we work with who have no access at all to local secondary education.

“We need to raise £250,000 to build the school, with a similar amount needed to sustain it for five years until it is self-sufficient.

“We are so blessed here with our education and our sport and so many different opportunities. In fact the Uganda hockey team couldn’t make it to their Olympic qualifiers because they didn’t have the money to travel.

“We all discussed it as a family and because it is 10 years since Charlene died we wanted to keep the momentum going and do something special and so we have launched 2020 Vision with a target of raising £500,000 to hopefully give children in Uganda the chance of a better future.”

Charlene, who inspired all of her family and everyone who knew her with her courage and determination, spent her first year in hospital and was then fostered by the Barr family. Her foster parents Janice and Dickie, a GP, soon fell in love with the little girl and adopted her.

Although surrounded by a family who adored her she did struggle with issues of identify because she was adopted, a subject poignantly dealt with in a book about her life called Chosen which was written by her brother David after she died.

David, a teacher reveals: “Charlene asked me to write her story one time when I was visiting her in the City Hospital in Belfast. She was in and out of hospital a lot, but she never complained. She’d be really sick and I’d come in with a pizza and ask her how she was, and she’d say ‘I’m fine – how are you?’ She just shrugged it off.

“But she had wrestled with her identity, having been adopted, and wanted to give hope to others working through their own issues.

“She had worked through hers, but it was really hard for her to have self-acceptance for a long time, even though we loved her unconditionally.

“It was really through a trip to Uganda in 2008, when she saw a lot of kids who were orphans – kids who had lost their parents – that she began to come to terms with her identity. That really resonated with her and transformed her outlook. She began to talk more about it and got more self-acceptance.”

Although not fit enough to play sport, Charlene was one of her three sister’s greatest fans.

Bethany, Serena and their sister Natalie, who is a primary school teacher, are all talented hockey players, who now play for Belfast Harlequins. All three girls qualified for a sports scholarship to study at Liberty University in the US.

Serena studied public health and then completed a masters in dietetics in Leeds Bradford University. Bethany graduated with a degree in environmental biology and geography and hopes to specialise in international development and is currently working part time for a Belfast missionary charity.

The girls have been playing hockey since the age of five, following in the footsteps of their older sister Natalie.

Charlene was one of their biggest supporters, even leaving hospital sometimes to cheer them on from a wheelchair on the sidelines.

Bethany admits that life without her is difficult but says her strong faith and keeping Charlene’s legacy alive help her to cope.

And she says it was thoughts of Charlene and also her strong faith in God which helped her to score a crucial goal in the shootout in Donnybrook which saw Ireland secure their ticket to the Tokyo Games.

“So often sitting in the hospital with Charlene she would be taking about all this money she wanted to raise in such a short period of time,” recalls Bethany. “I would be telling her she needed to take it slower but she had such faith and the people of Northern Ireland really got behind her.

“She is such an inspiration to me. She has shown us how to stand in the face of adversity and fight through it.

“Life didn’t give her the easiest road but it didn’t stop her achieving her dream and standing for God. I adored her so much and I really hope to make her proud.

“What I really miss is that I know she would have been there at Donnybrook, there is no doubt. Donnybrook was an absolutely amazing experience and the support was unbelievable.

“It was nerve-wracking, of course. Serena and I always say that for us there is an audience of one which is God who is such a big aspect of our lives. So often in life and in sport in particular you play to please others.

“To us, people’s opinions don’t matter, and every time we do it, we do it for God. Our value and worth are not placed on our performance but on what we do for him.

“I just kept repeating that to myself as I was taking the goal, that I wasn’t doing it for any glory for myself or even the team or my family, but for God and I did feel peace and calm and I knew he was with me.

“We play with the gift he has given us and try to use it to serve him.”

She adds: “I was absolutely determined to get the goal in the net and it means so much to have done it. I think it is every athlete’s dream to be training for the Olympics and I do count it as such a blessing to be part of this squad, among so many good players.

“We have a lot of training ahead of us next year and it will keep us focused.”

The sisters were formerly members of the Lurgan College all-Ireland winning team and Lurgan Ladies hockey team, and since returning from their university studies they have played with Belfast Harlequins.

For Serena too, working in Uganda keeps her close to Charlene and she says her sister is even with her when she is on the hockey pitch.

“I remember our first year playing for Lurgan College and we got to the semi-finals of the Schools’ Cup,” she says. “We were always very competitive and wanted to do well and we were gutted when we didn’t win. Charlene was there and consoled us by saying we will win it next year.

“She passed away before the next year’s final and we were determined – and we had the whole team and the whole school behind us – to win the cup for Charlene and we did. It was a very bittersweet moment and so special.”

Since returning from their studies in the US the girls continued to put their all into their hockey, both with the joint dream of playing for Ireland.

Now the chance of going to the Olympics is, says Serena, their ultimate goal: “We always said we would love to play for Ireland and decided just to try our hardest and see what happens.

“We’ve been working for it for so long and have spent so much time in Dublin training and being at the qualifier in a big arena with so many supporters there was an incredible experience for us.

“The Olympics has given us the motivation to work on and push on. It is so nice to be in it together and be working for one goal, and it’s exciting what is to come.

“If Charlene had been there I am sure she would have been so proud. I just thank God that she was put into our lives. I feel privileged to have had her in our family. She was fostered by our parents before we were born so to us our family was never any different. She always has done and continues to inspire me.”

It has become customary every Christmas for the family to run a huge fundraiser called ‘the Festive Fry-Up’ for Charlene’s Project in their local church hall in Dollingstown.

This year to launch 2020 Vision appeal they will be staging a slightly different event – the ‘Seasonal Sausage Sizzler’.

Bethany adds: “We served 800 fry-ups last year and raised £24,000. It’s a massive amount of work but the support is phenomenal. Besides, we love Christmas and it is a great opportunity to get everyone together over the festive season.

“It is so important for us to honour Charlene’s memory in Uganda because that is where her heart was and I hope people will come along this year and help us get our appeal launched.”

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