It was English philosopher Sir Bernard Williams (1929-2003) who wrote that no symphony orchestra ever played music like a two-year-old girl laughing with a puppy.
Drive past Bradley’s Place along Inman Valley Road just outside of Victor Harbor and you may discover what he was talking about; a house where children play with a dog called Elliot.
Actually, all of the dogs here are called Elliot, and they are very special. Elliot is the Childhood Cancer Association mascot, and an amazing friend to children living with cancer, and their families. Receiving an Elliot helps them get through their experience; the children tell him or her how they feel, what they are thinking. In their shining world of imagination, Elliot talks back to them.
Cath O’Loughlin (pictured), chief executive of the Childhood Cancer Association, a non-for-profit organisation based in Adelaide that receives no government funding, suggests Elliot so often creates the beautiful music that silences the reality that in South Australia last year 64 children newly diagnosed with cancer were referred to the association, 17 relapsed and 11 passed away from cancer.
Incredibly, the association is currently supporting more than 400 families across SA, Northern Territory and bordering towns like Mildura and Broken Hill.
Yet, amidst all of this profound heartache there are countless stories of children getting through 15 or 18 months of chemotherapy (it is nearly always far more intense compared with adults) by hugging and talking to Elliot, and emerging from the experience smiling and leading every-day lives.
And a key part to all of these challenges is Bradley’s Place, created by Neil and Robyn Walker, who in 1991 lost a twin, Bradley, to cancer at the age of four. Their experience helped them realise how important support systems were for other families facing similar trauma.
Bradley’s Place is a haven for children with cancer and their families, where parents may get much-needed respite, and sadly sometimes a private location to grieve.
Cath said the importance of the Victor Harbor region link was not under-estimated, and the wider community should know of the remarkable support of volunteers representing wonderful organisations like the Zonta Club of the Fleurieu Peninsula, who help clean and maintain Bradley’s Place.
“There is also Encounter Cleaning, which donates its time and energy, while the McCracken Country Club does a fundraiser each year and through its social club has raised more than $35,000 since 2011,” Cath said.
“Neil from Victor Fish, the Farmer’s Market and some of their stallholders generously provide discounted food to families, and the Urimbirra Wildlife Park has donated passes. There are so many other kind people who contribute to our cause.
“Over the years organisations have approached us and offered to build more respite accommodation around the state, which is so kind, but the reason Bradley’s Place works so well is the proximity to Adelaide. The feedback we get from families who have stayed here, and have experienced the kindness of the local community, is overwhelming.
“One of the challenges for us in terms of fundraising is helping people to understand that we don’t get government funding, and that we are an independent organisation and not part of the Cancer Council. We are dedicated to providing a unique range of services, and most importantly to their families.
“We need to raise $1 million every year – and 90 cents in every dollar actually supports the children with cancer and their family.”
Before 2011 the association was forced to run training sessions in coffee shops, and in the appalling offices parents being counselled could hear Cath talk on the phone in the next room. However, with incredible support from Edge Church, Reynella, the association is now based in specially-designed premises at 55 King William Road, city, and has coped with a significant increase in services.
The Childhood Cancer Association has a staff of eight including administrators who work far beyond the call of duty and three highly-skilled children psychologists. It was started in 1982 by parents with children who had cancer and with tremendous support from Dr Michael Rice, a leading paediatric oncologist, who was mindful of the fact that although children were getting marvellous medical care the impact of the diagnosis of childhood cancer also significantly affected the entire family.
Among the services provides is a sector often forgotten in the grieving process – the grandparents.
“We have a grandparents group for bereaved grandparents,” Cath said. “We get them together four times a year…. they can talk about their grandchild, they can continue to grieve, have a laugh and our counsellors are there to facilitate that session. They are a great group.
“It is a double loss for grandparents because they see their child grieving and they are grieving themselves. It is a special relationship. The siblings is another area we focus on… their lives are completely disrupted. They can be angry because their sibling has taken their parents away from them. They can be terribly frightened of what might be happening so we run a sibling group every school holidays.”
Cath, who has a background in law and working for the government, has been the CEO seven years. She says she tries not to take everything home with her, but admits the day childhood cancer stops impacting on her will be the day she finishes up.
“Children being diagnosed with cancer is a terrible thing, and it has a massive impact on the families,” Cath said. “But there are positives. I see the benefits of the services that we provide for the families; when a child passes away it’s a difficult time for families and our heart goes out to them.
“A lot of days I go home feeling so good about playing my part in a great team environment that helps families. I wake up and think, today the work our team is doing is going to help a large number of families. That’s every single day. I think that is something special; the families and the children certainly are.”
And so is Elliot.
The Childhood Cancer Association genuinely appreciates the support from the Victor Harbor and surrounding communities, and if you would like to make a donation to this great cause or consider making a bequeath please call the office on 8239 1444 or visit: www.childhoodcancer.asn.au
Imagine if the 8000 dog owners in the region thought of Elliot and donated $5.