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RAF engineer takes on EPIC 200-mile kayak in support of his bereaved military stepchildren


In 2010, 31-year-old Cpl David Jones died of cancer while serving in the RAF. He left behind his wife, Sarah, and their two young children, Harry and Luke. Harry was only two years old; Luke was just 14 weeks.

On the 13th of May, their stepdad, Darren Toland – an engineer in the RAF – and two friends are kayaking 200 miles along the England/Wales border, travelling from Ellesmere Port on The Wirral all the way down to the River Severn. A brutally physical journey which will take 10 days and test his body to the limit.

And he’s doing it all for Scotty’s Little Soldiers, the charity which has supported Harry and Luke for as long as they can remember.

RAF Engineer Darren Toland training for his 200-mile challenge

“I wanted to give something back.”

“The boys were both just babies when their dad died,” say Darren. “Sarah’s family and support network were amazing, but they were all up in Yorkshire and David’s family were in  North Wales, so it was difficult for them to be around as much as they wanted to be. Then she found out about Scotty’s Little Soldiers, who have been absolutely brilliant. From week-long respite breaks to something as simple as a card on the boys’ birthdays, Scotty’s have been supporting them for most of their life. It’s an amazing thing the charity does, and I wanted to give something back.” 

Darren won’t be taking on the challenge alone. He’ll be joined by two friends – Mark Hennis, who he will join him in the tandem kayak, and Steve Brown, who will be following them in a support car. 

Darren’s partner, Sarah, says: “When they said they were doing this, my first thoughts were they’ve had a few pints and they’ll wake up and think that was a daft idea, but then Darren started looking at purchasing a kayak and all the kit that goes with it. After his first training session he could hardly move his arms, but he’s gone from strength to strength and improved his technique massively.”

Darren's partner, Sarah, and stepchildren Luke and Harry

Intense training for an intense challenge

Mark has already kayaked across England, Scotland and Ireland, but Darren hasn’t been able to take on a challenge like this before due to work commitments, so this will be his first attempt. It’s guaranteed to be an intense challenge, so Darren and Mark have been spending every weekend doing some intense training. 

“I’ve never done a massive, multi-day challenge like this before. It's a bit daunting, but we’re doing some serious training to prepare ourselves. Every Saturday and Sunday we’re out on the kayak, in the currents, getting our bodies used to being battered for a prolonged period of time. It’s also useful for finding out how much recovery time you need and how much food and energy you’re going to burn through. It’s going to be long and it’s going to be painful. The plan is to cover a minimum of 20 miles a day, which in kayaking terms is a lot. It’s very heavy on your arms, and if there’s no wind or current, then four or five miles an hour is considered a strong pace.”

Darren and Mark

“I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I can chew.”

Darren’s stepson, Harry, said: “I hope they make it to the end. 200 miles is mad.” His brother Luke, meanwhile, has been desperate to have a go in a kayak. 

And the boys aren’t the only ones cheering Darren on.  

“Sarah has been so supportive of the whole thing. The kayak has been camped out in the garden for months now though, so I think she’ll be glad once it’s over and she can finally have the garden back! She and Mark’s wife, Naomi, have been giving up their weekends as well, since we’re out training and we haven’t really been able to do anything as a family for a while. I don’t think everyone necessarily realises how much dedication and effort it takes to do something like this. I certainly didn’t until we started training, and wondered if I’d bitten off more than I can chew.”

Darren piloting an aircraft

About Scotty’s

Scotty’s Little Soldiers is a military charity dedicated to supporting children and young people (0 to 25 years) who have experienced the death of a parent who served in the British Armed Forces.    

Inspired by the experience of Army widow Nikki Scott, following the death of her husband Corporal Lee Scott in Afghanistan in 2009, the charity, which was set up in 2010, provides support and guidance to hundreds of bereaved military children and young people throughout their childhood.    

Scotty’s currently support over 670 bereaved military children and young people. Services offered include access to child bereavement support, guidance to parents and carers, personal education and learning assistance (including grants), and fun activities such as holiday respite breaks and group events. These are all designed to remind the children and young people supported by Scotty’s that they are not alone.    

If you know a child or young person who has experienced the death of a parent who served in the British Armed Forces, they could be eligible for specialist bereavement support from Scotty's Little Soldiers. Hundreds of bereaved military children aren’t getting the support they need but we are here to help.  

If you know a bereaved military child who could benefit from Scotty’s Little Soldiers support, visit our Get Support page for more information.

Sarah on holiday with Harry and Luke


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