Children First has two separate properties that are safe and welcoming environments for our children, families, staff and volunteers. Each might have a unique function, but they are equally regarded as ‘home’.
Children First Miracle sMiles Retreat
Initially known as ‘The Farm’, in April 2016 the property was renamed the Miracle sMiles Retreat to better reflect the spirit of the home which offers children a healing supportive environment as they prepare for and recover from life-changing surgery
Established in 1999 as a home away from home for the children, the Retreat is a sanctuary – calm and nurturing. The rambling homestead is set on 45 hectares of gentle hills and slopes and can house up to 13 children.
In many ways, the Retreat is a mini ‘United Nations’ – a place that embraces the diversity of all who live there – the cultural, ethnic, religious and gender differences of the children who are brought together because of their shared need for transformative surgery.
Under the caring, watchful and compassionate eyes of Farm Manager Pat Weldon and Assistant Farm Manager Michelle Lyons, and supported by the volunteers, the children share the many tasks of running a large home, keeping their bedrooms tidy, folding clothes and washing the dishes.
The children’s needs during their stay
Consider for a moment what’s required to care for one sick child, perhaps your own. As they’re preparing for a major operation, they’re anxious, needing your love and emotional support.
They then require around the clock care following the surgery, possibly total bed-rest for weeks afterwards, dressings are changed, physiotherapy is performed, prescribed medication is dispensed. They also need nutritious food, clean clothes, entertainment, pain relief and trips for medical appointments.
Now multiply that many times over for many children. Add in the fact that you may also need to accommodate and support parents or guardians who are also frightened, with little English and experiencing a degree of culture shock. You then have some idea of the enormous challenges the staff and volunteers at the Retreat experience each day.
Through the eyes of a Retreat Manager
As Retreat Manager Pat Weldon explains, many children experience an enormous learning curve, adjusting to the everyday things that we simply take for granted in Australia.
‘Many of the children have not slept in a bed before and we often find them in the morning lying on top of their bedding on the floor. Equally, they may not have used a toothbrush, so we need to teach them how to clean their teeth. One thing we’ve learned is that we should never assume anything,’ says Pat.
‘Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Retreat and it’s really amazing how much they give of themselves, way beyond what is asked of them. They take the children to their hearts – basically, you can’t do this job unless you do. And we couldn’t do what we do without the volunteers, they give so much – seven days a week.’
Through the eyes of a Volunteer
While Michelle Lyons is now the Assistant Retreat Manager, she began her life at the Retreat as a volunteer. For over three years she worked two nights per week and one weekend each month. With grown children of her own, Michelle really empathises with the children’s parents, many of whom are not able to accompany their children to Australia.
‘If my children were going to another country to have a major operation and I couldn’t be there, I’d like them to be in a family-like environment with people who truly care. Seeing my own kids go through the trauma of surgery makes you realise how scary it can be. While we can’t replace their parents, we can try to really be there for them throughout it all,’ says Michelle.
‘Seeing the kids settle in, they’re unsure at first, then, as they gain confidence, you begin to see the person. It’s a great feeling when you hear the children refer to the Retreat as home.’
North Melbourne House
If the Retreat is the heart of Children First, then the North Melbourne House is the nerve centre. It is the administrative hub for everything, which includes:
- arranging each child’s evacuation and transport
- coordinating medical and hospital treatment
- expanding the programs
- developing relationships
- planning events
- liaising with media
- processing donations
- meeting with sponsors and supporters
Being close to surgeons and hospitals in Melbourne, it’s also the place where children can stay overnight before surgery. They can stop in on their way to a medical appointment and visit the staff during this time.