When Melissa Sutherland came home from one of her volunteer shifts at Totara Hospice, she mentioned to her son William that the toy box in the In-Patient Unit was looking a bit bare. The pair went through their cupboards, to see if they had anything to donate, but couldn’t find anything. It was then that William, a Totara Hospice Youth Ambassador, took matters into his own hands and came up with the idea of a Toy Donation Drive at his school, The Gardens.
“The next thing I know he’s been to the school principal and had a discussion about it!” says Melissa. “They were great because they were really supportive in letting him run with it, with organising posters and communication and collecting all the toys. It was a great little thing for him to manage. I’m very proud of him.”
William says the school community really got behind the idea. “Kids and families dropped the toys off and we collected them all up – we got heaps! We sorted them and took them over to the Hospice because it’s only across the road from school.”
At 13, William is one of the younger Youth Ambassadors in the programme that Totara Hospice runs for students aged 11-19 who help with fundraising and raising the profile of Hospice in the community. His connection with Hospice came about in 2013 when he and Melissa cared for her father at home following his terminal 6-week diagnosis with cancer. “My dad was a member of the local Lions club and they used to support Hospice,” says Melissa. “But my first direct contact with them was when Dad wanted to stay at home [after the diagnosis]. It was a real privilege looking after Dad… and we were able to do that because of the support we got from the nurses up there.”
Melissa says the experience had a lasting impact on William and she wasn’t surprised when he joined the Youth Ambassadors last year. “I find that he takes it all in his stride – having lost his grandad so young and being right there. Because he saw Dad every day right up until he wasn’t communicating any more, William has a real understanding of that stage.”
Although working full-time, Melissa started volunteering earlier this year too, and helps out in weekends and school holidays. She believes the Youth Ambassador programme, as well as helping Hospice, benefits the Ambassadors, too. “I think it brings an outstanding empathy, and an understanding of others, and just looking outside yourself. I’m a teacher and there are so many children who are incredibly wrapped up in themselves. And it’s providing service too – doing something for absolutely nothing in return, other than the feeling that you get when someone says thank you.”
For William, it’s most certainly about giving back. “I get to help people at Hospice and the Hospice supported my grandad and that’s why I like doing it. I’m going to keep doing it – even when I get to college next year.”