I can’t explain adequately how it feels to lose your child. As the mother who nurtured and cared for him and did all I could to ‘keep him safe’, it's ironic that one day I hadn't been able to.

After Ceri's death, abject horror and profound anger at the waste of such a precious life remained alongside the immense grief of my other children.  

Only the day before his death, Ceri had proudly held the hand of his younger 11 year-old sister to guide her across the road. But the next day all our lives shattered when at just 18 he was knocked from his bike by a vehicle. 

Making every moment matter

Many have asked me how I could have started a charity while suffering such grief at the loss of my beloved son, and I can only say that it was due to the awareness that family life must continue. Being bound up in grief would have stopped me from making sure that in every moment my remaining children felt just as precious, as loved and as valued as Ceri was. For their sakes I had to do something positive to drag myself out of despair. 

Back then, everything felt futile: what was the point of having a child for 18 years only to lose him? Ceri had been very patriotic, deeply aware of other people’s disadvantages, and he was very family-orientated. He wanted to make a difference.

As a teenager he had helped a disabled friend every week; he found out that blood donations and organs were in short supply for sick people and so he put his name down.  

It was hard to come to terms with the idea that an air ambulance we didn’t yet have could have saved his life, a life that potentially would have enabled him to do all the things he cared about. Ceri would have been the first to recognise the value of an air ambulance and to work towards making it happen.

That's when I realised he still could.

Making fundraising the focus

Because of Ceri, it became clear that an air ambulance could be achieved for Devon.

Immediately I became focused. Fundraising for an air ambulance could help to make sense of his loss and other families would not have to suffer what we did. The Ceri Thomas Appeal was launched.  

To capture media and therefore public attention, I secured the Dean’s - The Very Reverend Richard Eyre - permission to land a helicopter in the grounds of Exeter Cathedral - something that had never happened before. The cathedral was at the heart of Exeter and the heart of Devon - a sacred place. I can never adequately express my thanks to this gracious man enough for his faith in the idea.  

A generous ex-army helicopter pilot and London surgeon lent me their time and their St Bartholomew's Hospital air ambulance to undertake this landing and land at several other sites areas around Devon to announce the charity and its purpose. We were on our way.  

I set about providing the evidence for those who thought it would cost too much, or that we didn't need an air ambulance, while I knew for those who imagined themselves in my place there would be no argument. 

I told doubters that the money could be raised by Devon's one million inhabitants donating just 50p a year to raise the half million the service would need to run (at the time).

It was very tough indeed to convince some that a tiny woman who’d never run a company, and had never organised fundraising, could make this appeal a success. Many potentially valuable celebrities, businesses - even the health authority shied away through fear of association with possible failure. 

I offered to talk at every imaginable meeting, seeking to convince everyone that a huge expense was offset by the saving in intensive care units which cost thousands a day. I sought to make everyone believe that even a small sum was great, because small amounts mount up. 

And the people of Devon responded, they didn't just donate money, they went out and raised it making cakes, jam, crafts - all kinds of sponsorship activities to raise those essential funds. 

Support from every community

There were so many people who came out in support. Farmers who must venture into terrain far from the reach of a road ambulance knew too well that an air ambulance could make all the difference to them. Likewise, the equestrian community recognised the lifesaving difference such a service could make far from the beaten track. 

One of my talks to Young Farmers took me to a village on Dartmoor where a young man came up to me and said he hoped I would succeed as he felt strongly that an air ambulance was a necessity for Devon. He emptied out his pockets and gave me every penny he had (about 15 pounds) and said he knew I would put it to good use. I often think of him and hope that when the air ambulance went into service he would know that I had valued every penny he had given!  

Sooner than anyone could have imagined, fund-raising was taking place across Devon. I targeted ‘quieter’ areas with talks, leaflets and attention until there was a network of fundraising that covered the entire county.

For the next two years, despite a great many obstacles and spectacular let-downs (and there were moments when the success of Ceri’s appeal seemed doomed), Ceri’s legacy drove me forward and it was also keeping my other children going, giving them hope - I couldn't let them or Ceri down.

But all the while the Devon people continued to raise money and I received phone calls from people telling me what they intended to do, proud of what they had already raised and all the ‘little’ sums that the cynics had sneered at added up. 

Two years of effort finally realised

Two years after the cathedral landing, we had raised enough money to launch the service, with strategies and regular fundraising events in place to provide a regular income for the years to come.  

I could not have achieved this without you, the people of Devon, who listened to Ceri’s story and could see that having an air ambulance in Devon was worthwhile and very much needed.

Without you, the service wouldn’t have been possible; you took Ceri’s cause to your hearts and have done every year for over thirty years since. 

Ceri would have been thrilled that because of him, and your support, many lives have been saved.  

Thank you so, so much for this incredible sustaining support from the beginning, and for your heartfelt sympathy and deep care for all of Devon’s communities. 

Ann Ralli is Devon Air Ambulance's Founder and Life President and she continues to play an important role in the life of the charity. It's thanks to Ann's vision and the many thousands of individuals, groups, businesses and communities that our lifesaving service continues to respond, every day of the year. 

We welcome your continued support

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