"We wouldn’t be where we are without the work the Duke has done," WellChild chief executive Matt James exclusively tells PEOPLE
Prince Harry is back in the U.K. for a cause close to his heart.
On Thursday, the Duke of Sussex, 38, stepped out to attend the WellChild Awards in London. The national charity works to support seriously ill children and their families, and the annual awards celebrate the inspirational qualities of the young people and those who care for them.
The father of two traveled from his California home for the special event. King Charles’ son has been a patron of WellChild for 15 years, and the affiliation is one of the few he retained from his royal life after stepping back from his royal role in 2020 with his wife, Meghan Markle.
While Prince Harry attended the event solo, he told one family that his wife was "very upset that she couldn’t be here," Hello! magazine reported.
Exclusively speaking with PEOPLE ahead of the event, WellChild chief executive Matt James shared how meaningful it was to have Prince Harry there. While last year’s WellChild Awards were among the charitable events the Duke and Duchess of Sussex traveled to Europe for around this time last year, things changed on Sept. 8 when news broke that Queen Elizabeth was critically ill. She died later that day, and Friday marks the first anniversary of her death.
The awards were also scaled down or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years.
“This was the first time in four years that he has been able to take part in this way,” James says. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for his support. We talk a lot about how we punch above our weight as we are a small team doing a lot of good work at a high level, and we wouldn’t be where we are without the work the Duke has done to help us fundraise, attract supporters and providing a platform to shine a light on the issues being faced by families up and down the country.”
“But also for the hundreds of smiles he has put on faces of WellChild Award winners over the years. It’s such a boost for us,” he adds.
At one point at Thursday's event, Prince Harry met a young girl named Poppy who wore a blue dress and showed off some of her dance moves as Harry clapped, as seen in a video shared on social media by WellChild.
Poppy, 7, won the award for Caring Child for helping to take care of her 17-year-old sister Paige, who has severe epilepsy and hyperinsulinism, according to Hello! magazine.
Hayley and Poppy have been chatting to WellChild Patron The Duke of Sussex at the #WellChildAwards, in association with @GSK. Poppy even showed him and @GabyRoslin her dance moves! pic.twitter.com/Eua4Yis8vm
— WellChild (@WellChild) September 7, 2023
Another young boy named Blake McCaughey gifted Prince Harry with a personalized Belfast hockey jersey. The back of the shirt read "Harry" and had the number 84, representing the year that the Duke of Sussex was born.
Harry held the jersey up to himself and gave the teen a fist bump.
Blake was honored at the event as the Inspiration Young Person in the 15 to 18 age group. A clip that rolled before he accepted the award showed him keeping hospital staff entertained by decorating his room for holidays and dressing up in costumes.
Having Prince Harry celebrate the inspirational winners “provides the whole evening with a lift. I know the families are so excited about it.” He spends some time with the winning families and gets to know their stories — and James explains, “That is the moment they never forget. They will treasure and take it away with them and tell their friends and families. They leave that room with huge smiles on their faces and absolutely buzzing."
“Tonight is about providing them with a moment they will never ever forget and about providing them with recognition that they don’t often get. What these children and their carers do is often unseen and the Duke’s presence there provides a huge lift,” he says.
Having the prince there is a great morale boost. The WellChild Awards are "the pinnacle of our mission which is to ensure that children and young people with serious illness have the very best chance to thrive. The awards are a celebration of that and embodies everything that our charity is about.”
It has been a challenging few years since the pandemic, and “in the context of a cost of living crisis and high inflationary environment,” which makes fundraising difficult, the executive says.
“At the same time, demand for help and support is sky-high. It is a challenging time. But we are in a really good place and are excited about the future and what we can achieve,” James tells PEOPLE, sharing that WellChild is about to set out a new strategy to “meet the challenges of families of the next few years.”
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More than 100,000 children and young people are living across the U.K. with serious health needs, WellChild says. The awards honor the awe-inducing qualities of children and young people living with serious illnesses or complex medical needs and highlight the dedication of nurses, parents and siblings who help to provide the kids with healthy and happy lives.
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Harry has attended 11 of the awards ceremonies, and Meghan joined him at the awards in 2018 and 2019. The Duke of Sussex is set to present the Award for Inspirational Child (aged 4 to 6) and give a speech at the ceremony on Thursday.
The Duke of Sussex was last in the U.K. in June when he spent two days giving testimony in court against Mirror Group Newspapers for alleged unlawful information gathering. The month before, he made a quick trip to his native country for his father King Charles' coronation ceremony.
While Prince Harry stops in London for the WellChild Awards on the eve of the anniversary of his grandmother’s death and before the Invictus Games in Germany, which start Saturday, sources say that there is no chance of a reunion with his brother or father. Prince William feels betrayed by Harry’s claims in his memoir, Spare, and the Netflix docuseries Harry & Meghan, but he is dealing with his feelings privately, insiders say in this week’s exclusive PEOPLE cover story.
A source who knows both brothers says the public drama “has quieted down a bit.”
In matters both personal and professional, “there is an enormous loss,” says a source close to the royal household, “as [the Queen] played a very important part in all of their lives. But I’m impressed at how smoothly things are moving forward given all the little hiccups that there are in the background."
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