November 8th, 2021Susie O’Neill and how tragedy can turn to triumph
WHEN Susie O’Neill was writing When Bad Things Happen…Good Things Can Grow, to be launched in Daylesford next month, she couldn’t believe how her title turned into reality.
Thieves ransacked her children’s foundation, even stripping it of 28 years of history, but up stepped donors with $50,000 in cash.
Dr O’Neill, who holds a doctorate in education, is a former kindergarten head and primary teacher who founded KIDS Foundation to work with and support children at risk.
She came up with the idea of selling the foundation’s big building in Ballarat and using the money. Then she got council permission to renovate an old Department of Defence building, a rabbit- and rat-ridden structure at the local airport. Over the past 18 months, she says, it has been turned into a beautiful place.
Covid meant the building was empty for two and a half months. Excitement was high when Dr O’Neill and her team returned, champagne in hand for an end-of-day celebration, only to find there was no power.
And no computers, no screens, laptops or coffee machine. Even the lawnmower had been stolen. All up, $20,000 worth of equipment was gone, as well as the foundation’s history backed up on computer drives.
The next blow came the following night when a $50,000 trailer was stolen, later to be found dumped, damaged and spray-painted.
A foundation board member got Dr O’Neill on Neil Mitchell’s show on 3AW in Melbourne. Among those listening was Mark Ward, who runs the Mill Markets in Daylesford, Geelong and Ballarat (and soon in Bendigo).
He could scarcely wait to find a place to pull over on the Western Highway and ring Dr O’Neill to ask: “How much do you need?” His $10,000 went in that afternoon.
The owner to the Australian rights to the Pokemon trading card game then offered $10,000. His wife overheard him on the phone and said: “Double it”, he did. A racing stables tipped in another $10,000. Someone even gave a coffee machine.
For Mark Ward, helping a foundation for children means a lot. Leaving school at 12, he built a highly successful business and then at 54 became a father for the first time. He believed that he could give his son Archer the life he needs and fought and won a Family Court case for custody of the now eight-year-old.
So has he donated before? “All the time,” he says. “It means you can go to bed with a warm heart.”
In her book, Dr O’Neill tells of her car crash, bike accident in Bali, an agonising broken finger, shoulder reconstruction and knee surgery, all before she was 60. In 2008 she had a rare heart tumour that required open heart surgery. Six months later she competed in the World Ironman Championships in Las Vegas, swimming 3.8km, riding 180km and running 42.2km.
Over 10 years her foundation raised more than $1.5 million through events created with Ironman Australia. She even raised $150,000 from a young ironman contestant after talking to him during an event.
And while many not-for-profits are criticised for the amount of money spent on administration, she gives her salary to the foundation, thanks to the success of her husband Brett’s plumbing business. Their home is a converted church, with a dining-room that seats 20 (her family of 18 is about to hit that number).
What this money means is a safety program in 10,000 kindergartens, including 465,000 books on safety, some in four languages. Then there are the five camps around the country, connecting like-minded children who have been abused or experienced violence.
When Covid hit, Dr O’Neill was determined to find something positive, so she wrote Let Kids Be Kids, a soon-to-be-published book on raising happy, healthy and safe children.
Another book, SeeMore Bug Safety – the tiny germs we can’t see, explains Covid to small children.
Along the way she helped set up a scheme, suspended during Covid, by which small children visit people in aged homes.
Much of this began when she and Brett renovated a place for a child who was unwell but had to share his care with two elderly people.
Her When Bad Things Happen…Good Things Can Grow book will be launched at the Çonvent Gallery on December 21 by Dr Richard “Harry” Harris, hero of the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018. And he’s a KIDS Foundation patron. The book’s subtitle reads: “Survivors’ stories of hope from the aftermath of unimaginable trauma, abuse and burns.”
As Mark Ward said of Dr O’Neill’s her foundation during our interview: “If it’s going to save one kid’s life, it’s worth it, and you are saving thousands.”
Words: Kevin Childs | Image: Kyle Barnes