When Kelly Appleby’s husband Chris died three days before Christmas 2013, the mum-of-two from Shefford, Bedfordshire, didn’t know how life would go on.
“I can’t really remember that Christmas, it was just a blur,” she recalls. “I remember the kids writing letters to Santa on Christmas Eve and leaving them out, they were putting things like ‘say hello to dad for me’ and ‘all I want for Christmas is something to make my family smile again’. At that point you think, are they ever going to smile again? They’d just had their whole world turned completely upside down.”
Thanks to the help of Scotty’s Little Soldiers, one of the charities Prince Harry and Meghan Markle asked the public to support instead of buying them wedding gifts, 35-year-old Kelly and her twin daughters Caitlin and Lauren, 14, have indeed managed to smile again. In fact, the teenagers, who were just 10 years old when their dad passed away, say the charity has helped “bring them closer” to Chris.
Scotty’s Little Soldiers is a charity founded by war widow Nikki Scott, who wanted to channel the heartbreaking experience of losing her husband Cpl Lee Scott into something positive. Her charity helps support children across the country who have lost a parent while serving in the British Armed Forces, offering them access to activities such as holiday breaks and group events, educational grants and access to bereavement counselling.
Kelly’s husband Chris died at the age of 32 from terminal skin cancer, which had spread to his liver and lungs. He had served in the Forces for 13 years before his tragic death. “He was extremely loud, very energetic, full of life,” Kelly recalls fondly. “He had a massive personality to the point where you’d know as soon as he walked into the room because you’d hear him before seeing him.”
The Staff Sergeant had a mole removed back in 2004, which wasn’t cancerous. But when it grew back while he was on tour in Afghanistan in 2011, one of the doctors noticed it looked an unusual colour, so Chris was flown back to the UK where the mole was removed, tested and he was told it was cancerous.
Kelly was there when the news was delivered. “You feel like your whole world is tumbling down,” she says. “In the back of my mind I was thinking: we have two kids, he’s young. You just don’t expect that to happen. He was very proactive about it all, but I was just breaking down inside.”
The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes so Chris underwent surgery to have two of them removed. “The surgeons were really confident they’d got it all,” Kelly recalls. “So we were happy and he got on with his life.”
But in February 2012, Chris noticed two lumps on his chest and hospital tests confirmed the worst: the cancer had spread to his liver and lungs.
The father-of-two underwent treatment but passed away in December 2013. Kelly’s parents moved in to help her cope with the Christmas period, but the aftermath was unbearable. “It was hard trying to be mum and dad,” she says. “I’ve got two active children: Caitlin was doing gymnastics at the time, Lauren was doing her football. It’s hard when you’re on the sidelines and you see the other mums and dads, and then it’s just me.”
A friend of Kelly’s recommended she got in touch with Scotty’s Little Soldiers, which she was reluctant to do at first as her husband hadn’t died on active duty, however she soon changed her mind.
Within weeks of picking up the phone, her girls had received welcome packs from the charity. They received financial help to attend sports clubs and school trips, as well as vouchers on special occasions like birthdays, Christmas and even the anniversary of their dad’s death. The charity has also provided the family with a much-needed holiday to Great Yarmouth.
“As soon as anything comes through the door from Scotty’s their faces instantly light up because they’re so excited knowing they’re being thought of,” says Kelly. “It’s just nice knowing we aren’t alone in what we’re going through. I could ring them [Scotty’s] and ask for advice, and they would do their utmost to help.”
Lauren received money from the charity to help her join a local football club. “It’s just something I love to do,” the 14-year-old reveals. “It’s my life, it makes me feel happy. It also helps me feel close to my dad, as he was the one who got me into football. It helps me because I can imagine dad’s there on the sidelines.” Caitlin also recently joined the same football club, thanks to the charity, so she can feel closer to her late father.
The family are deeply moved that Harry and Meghan are supporting the charity as part of their wedding. “It means the absolute world,” says Kelly. “The charity has put a smile back on the girls’ faces. They feel like they’re not alone and there are people out there looking out for them and supporting them.
“When you look at how many children are affected by losing a parent in the military, it’s quite humbling to know someone like Nikki has set up the charity so these children aren’t forgotten.”
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