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Courageous nursery practitioners have conquered the Pyrenees in a four-day expedition to help raise over £4,500 for Children’s Air Ambulance, which has just one helicopter covering the country, reaching only one in every three children who need life-saving help.
Battling snow, sleet and rain which forced other expeditions off the mountains, the team from Childbase Partnership, which has 44 day nurseries throughout the South of England, climbed and navigated paths bounded by sheer drops following the ‘Freedom Trail’ to Spain.
Jacky Bufton, manager of the Ofsted-rated ‘Outstanding’ Windermere Day Nursery in Kettering, returned to a hero’s welcome, complete with banners and a chocolate-filled medal, by staff and children.
“It was an extraordinary experience and undoubtedly the most challenging and scary thing I have ever done,” she said. “I have been overwhelmed by everybody’s kindness and support and feel enormously proud to be a member of this expedition and what we achieved together.”
The four-member team who made it from France to Spain were Ms Bufton, David Thomas of Woodcote Day Nursery in Purley, Jose Guilherme of West Cambridge Day Nursery, and Oana Stamate of Greengables Day Nursery in Sandhurst.
Amid unexpected snow storms which reduced visibility, and falls that resulted in a broken arm for one climber and a dislocated finger for a guide, only the fittest in the 40-strong Childbase Partnership expedition were permitted to continue the challenge.
Describing it as the toughest challenge of his life, Jose Guilherme of the Ofsted-rated ‘Outstanding’ West Cambridge Day Nursery, said an intensive training programme - which included carrying an 11-kilo rucksack with tent and supplies - in advance of the expedition did not prepare him for the conditions.
“Tiredness was a constant as we pushed our bodies to the limit every day,” he said. “The hardest part was finding out that all the groups before us had been forced to quit, which was demoralising, but we kept pushing on and we finished it.
“The team was fantastic and so supportive of each other,” he added. “I never thought it possible that I could bond with, and care for a group of people I’d never met before but we have become good friends and will cherish this experience forever.”
The team had to walk and climb in wet clothes, sleep in tents and cling to a rock face rope on a 12-inch-wide path with a sheer drop on one side.
Commenting on the experience, Oana Stamate of Greengables Day Nursery in Sandhurst, said: “I was focused on being physically ready it never occurred to me to that it would be a mental challenge as well. I was so scared on the third day that maybe I couldn’t do it but the wonderful support at home and on the mountain made me even more determined,” she said.
“I am in awe of the people who did this journey with little or no equipment, as they fled Nazi occupation during the war. When I reached the Spanish boarder I cried with joy.”
David Thomas, a keen history enthusiast from Woodcote Day Nursery in Purley, added: “Our guides were ex-RAF and quite extraordinary. Half way through day three we passed the crash site of a wartime Halifax bomber which was an emotional moment for all of us.
“We were so very proud to be following the trail used by refugees escaping the Nazis and to honour their memory. That was a great motivation.”
Highlights of the challenge included a three-minute shower in a mountain retreat, sleeping in a shepherd’s hut and setting off early on day three ahead of 13 young army recruits who failed to catch the team up.
’Once in a Lifetime' experiences
Expedition leader Mike Thompson, chief executive officer of Childbase Partnership, chose the challenge as the the latest in the company’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’ experiences for staff.
Although he was forced to abandon his crossing into Spain due to the conditions, he met the successful team as they came off the mountains. He said: “I have watched people of all abilities take themselves out of their comfort zone and through sheer determination reach distance, heights and endure depths which they never believed possible. I am overwhelmed by the individual and collective achievements."
The Freedom Trail, one of the World War Two escape routes from Nazi-occupied France, involves trekking and climbing through terrain of cirques, rocky ridges, beech forests and mountain lakes reaching heights of 2522m before the descent into Spain.
Through ‘Once in a Lifetime' experiences, Childbase offers employees a variety of opportunities to broaden their horizons or challenge themselves physically or intellectually.
Teams have taken part in the New York and Chicago marathons, conquered Kilimanjaro in Africa, conducted training sessions in South African townships and successfully swum the English Channel to France.
Childbase Partnership provides childcare and early years education to over 5,700 children aged between six weeks to five-years-old.
The childcare group is founded on the principle that employee well-being, engagement and retention is critical to consistently high-quality provision.