My name is Billie Thaw, and I have a story to tell.
It’s not my story – it is God’s story of how He has transformed a dilapidated Georgian manor house in Sheffield into a residential holiday centre for children and young people, and how He is using this special place to change lives.
Dan and I first saw The Oakes on a cold, wet, foggy day in January 1996. The building felt like a giant fridge, and the grounds were so tangled and overgrown, that it was hard to find our way through them, yet we knew that this place was exactly what we had been hoping and praying for.
Two years earlier, we had spent a few weeks volunteering at Teen Ranch Australia, a residential centre just outside Sydney. God confirmed what we already knew – that a fun filled activity holiday was the perfect backdrop for young people to hear about a God who loves them.
After returning to our P.E. teaching jobs in Bristol, we started to look for a suitable property to set up a similar centre in the UK. The Oakes ticked every box. Its location was unique – it was within the city boundary, yet felt completely rural. The layout of the house was perfect – it had everything needed for a holiday centre. The grounds were beautiful – a wooded area, a walled garden and a lake provided potential for a wide range of activities. We returned to Bristol buzzing with excitement.
Six months later, we left our teaching jobs, packed up our little flat and moved to Sheffield. After almost two years, on the 12th May 1998, everything was finally in place and The Oakes Trust was able to move ahead with the purchase. Another two years later, we were ready to open as a holiday centre.
These four years were a rollercoaster of ups and downs as we faced a range of constant challenges, yet God’s faithfulness shone through at every dark moment. He opened doors when the circumstances seemed impossible, He provided for all our material and financial needs and He sent us the right people at the right time, over and over again.
I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as ‘fortunate coincidences’ in the Christian life, but there are many, many “God-instances” – seemingly small happenintrags which we can look back on and see how God has used them in a really significant way to bring about His purposes. The story of The Oakes is full of these.
Through many answered prayers, we managed to open as planned on 1st July, 2000. This involved an extensive renovation programme, carried out almost entirely by volunteers, and our team continues to be made up of volunteers to this day.
When we opened, we only had a low-level ropes course and we filled our programme with crafts, wide games, slip and slide and bonfires. We now have archery, a climbing wall, rafting, a mini mudder assault course, zorbs, tunnels and remote control cars, plus many more exciting new activities planned for the future.
From the very start, God has provided for all our financial needs and around 40% of our annual income is still gifted by supporters. This enables us to keep our fees low and continue to improve our facilities. We also have a Holiday Fund fund to provide assistance where there is a particular need to ensure that every child can access our camps.
Over the last 21 years, we have welcomed over 30,000 campers and trained over 300 young adults on our Impact (gap year) training programme, and we are now looking for opportunities to help set up similar centres in the future.
The story of The Oakes has been told in a full colour, coffee table style book. “A Story to Tell” has been written to share all that God has done at The Oakes and to show how amazing and faithful He is. The book also includes a section by Joanne Gilchrist which looks back through the history of the estate and the people who lived there beforehand, recounting how God was paving the way for it to become what it is to this day.