Nikki Smith’s two daughters were huddled around the computer screen.
‘What are you watching?’ she asked, peering over their shoulders; it was a YouTube video of a family surprising their children with a trip to Walt Disney World, in Florida.
As the children in the video screamed with delight, her girls – aged ten and twelve – turned to her, faces lit up with hope.
‘Mummy, one day will you surprise us with a trip to Disney World too?’ they asked, and Nikki literally felt her heart twist. ‘We’ll see,’ she answered, and quickly changed the subject. She didn’t want to disappoint them, but the reality was she’d never be able to make their dreams come true.
She was already finding it a challenge to make ends meet. She worked two 12-hour nightshifts a week as a healthcare assistant at her local hospital – the most she could manage without needing childcare – and there was rarely anything left at the end of each month for treats.
Nikki knew Disney World was an extravagance, and all that really mattered was that her daughters were happy and healthy. Still, it upset her that they’d never have this wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience many families took for granted.
‘My daughters are the most amazing, kind loving and caring people,’ she says. ‘They really are my best friends, and I desperately wanted them to have some magic in their lives too, just like the kids they watched for hours on YouTube.’
Nikki was at work when she overheard two colleagues chatting about a money raising website called ‘Go Fund Me’. People set up their own web page outlining what they needed money for and visitors had the option of donating to their cause if they wanted to. It was a totally optional site – there was no pressure or obligation to spend a penny if people didn’t feel the cause was worthy.
One woman described how she’d helped to pay for her gap year travels from donations to her page, while the other’s sister had funded her dream honeymoon.
‘I had no idea this kind of thing even existed,’ Nikki says, ‘but my immediate thought was of my girls; could this the way I finally made their dreams come true?’
Intrigued, she looked up the site during her break and was amazed to see some of the things people were receiving donations towards – everything from home renovations, to school fees, to breast implants. Figuring she had nothing to lose, she set up a page asking for help raising £5000.
(My daughters) love anything Disney and I know that I would never be able to get them there on my own; by the time I saved up they would be too old to enjoy it,’ she wrote. ‘We lost two very special people in our lives these past couple of years, and this really would give them so much to look forward to. Please help me to make my daughters’ dreams come true.’
She logged off, and promptly forgot about it. In fact, she was so sure she wouldn’t get any donations she didn’t even bother sharing it to her own Facebook page.
A few days later her phone rang. The woman on the other end mentioned ‘Go Fund Me’, and Nikki assumed she was a salesperson from the website. ‘What do you think of all the negative comments?’ the woman asked, and Nikki suddenly snapped to attention. ‘Sorry,’ she asked. ‘Where did you say you were calling from?’
She was a reporter from a national newspaper.
Heart pounding, Nikki quickly ended the call and logged on to her Go Fund Me page. She was shocked to discover it had been shared 18,000 times, and attracted a torrent of abusive messages from people outraged she’d asked for help paying for a holiday. Sick with dread, she shut the page down, and prayed that would be the end of it.
But the next day her sister rang to say a friend had seen an online article about her appeal, and the fact it had caused such an uproar. ‘It was horrible,’ Nikki says. ‘They’d had posted pictures of me and my children with their faces blurred out, and the story basically called me a beggar.’
As other outlets picked up on the story it gathered momentum, and went viral around the world. ‘I went into a panic – not for me, but for my girls,’ Nikki says. ‘As more and more stories came out I felt increasingly anxious and depressed. I had a constant knot in my stomach and couldn’t eat, and lost eight pounds in three weeks.’
Word inevitably got out closer to home. A few days later her 12-year-old was looking withdrawn: ‘Some kids keep asking me why you’ve been stealing money,’ she said. And Nikki’s heart broke.
‘I was absolutely gutted,’ she says. ‘I’d tried to do something amazing for them, and it had been twisted into something so horrible. I thought I’d ruined their lives.’
She explained the entire story to her girls, and they hugged her. ‘Don’t worry Mummy,’ they said, ‘we know you were just trying to make us happy; we’ll stick up for you.’
As soon as the girls were out of sight, Nikki broke down in tears. What had she done?
She understood why people thought she’d been cheeky; when she took a closer look at the site she saw some heartbreaking stories and realised that – by comparison – hers must have seemed trivial. But she hadn’t lied about her situation, or tried to make out they were more deserving than any one else – she’d simply stated her wish and given people the option to support her, or scroll past.
She’d been naive, but she wasn’t the horrible person the news stories were making her out to be.
She couldn’t believe the pure hatred that was now being directed towards her family – her older daughter continued to be teased by other children (her youngest was, thankfully, unaffected). Nikki was told she was an embarrassment to her family, and that her children should be taken off her.
Abuse flooded in on all of Nikki’s social media channels – literally thousands of messages – forcing her to shut them all down. She even lost friends, who believed what they were reading.
After weeks of relentless harassment Nikki became too afraid to even leave her house. Reporters and television shows were hounding her for interviews, but she refused them all – she just wanted it all to go away. She slid deeper and deeper into anxiety, and ended up on antidepressants.
Thankfully, her family were totally supportive.’You’re a mum who tried to make her daughters’ dreams come true,’ they told her. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong.’
Finally, Nikki realised she couldn’t just sit back and continue to let the media destroy her; it was time she stood up to the people who were judging her, and tell her side of the story.
She reactivated her page and began to write an update: I have had the worst few months, she began. She explained that she’d put the page up without thinking it through, and had been utterly unprepared for the abuse she’d received. She apologised for offending anyone, and admitted she’d been genuinely traumatised by all the negative press, saying: I was only trying to fulfil my children’s dreams.
She set her fundraising target at £10 – which was the total amount she’d raised on the previous page – because this this time it wasn’t about the money, it was about standing up for herself.
Once again, news of her GO FUND ME appeal spread, but this time something amazing happened – the comments were kind and supportive. Your girls will be proud of you for your strength, read one. From one mum to another, enjoy Disney – don’t give up dreaming! said another.
Nikki couldn’t believe it when donations began to trickle in: I’m happy to help fund a trip that will be a wonderful lifetime memory you can share, one person wrote.
The balance continued to edge upwards – £100, then £500, then £1000. Incredibly, just one month after reopening her page, the balance had reached Nikki’s original target of £5000 – enough for her to take the girls to Disney World next summer.
‘I cried,’ she admits. ‘It really restored my faith in humanity, and made me feel like all the pain had been worth it.’
Today, bolstered by well-wishers from all over the world, Nikki is regaining her confidence and reclaiming her life back.
The Go Fund Me balance currently stands at over £7000 – more than she ever wished or hoped for. Nikki hasn’t told the girls the good news yet; she plans to surprise them – just like the families in those YouTube videos they still watch endlessly.
‘Now my girls will get their Disney dream, and we’ll be making beautiful family memories to last forever,’ she says. ‘I can’t thank (our supporters) enough; I’ll never never forget what they’ve done for us.’
Nikki Smith hasn’t requested or received any payment for telling her story
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