Deb Pickering, Children First Foundation retreat manager, and Judy Goss, assistant manger (back left and third from left) with retreat volunteers, children in care, and representatives from Bendigo Bank Kit Holland, Kate Boulton and David Wheeler.

BENDIGO Bank’s Kilmore, Wallan and Broadford branches have donated $30,000 to the Children First Foundation’s Kilmore East retreat for children recovering from life-saving surgeries.

Children First Foundation is an Australian-based charity that provides medical care to sick, disabled or injured children from disadvantaged countries.

Unable to access the healthcare they need in their home countries, the children are flown to Australia for complex medical treatment provided through partnerships with close to 50 Australian specialists, six major Melbourne hospitals, and several referring organisations based in countries around Asia, the Pacific and Africa.

Pre and post-surgery, the patients recover and rehabilitate at the foundation’s retreat in Kilmore East, a homestay set on an expansive block of rural land with recreational and allied health facilities such as a playground, pool and physiotherapy rooms.

“We’re incredibly grateful to Bendigo Bank,” retreat manger Deb Pickering said.

“This money is going towards [an indoor] sprinkler system, which is a legal requirement for the retreat to have – a very expensive requirement.”

“Bendigo Bank have given us money every year that I’ve been here. They have these wonderful nights at the Kilmore Trackside, and it’s not until you go to something like that that you realise how much the Bendigo Bank gives back to the community.”

The foundation is calling for more support as it grapples with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on its programs.

Due to international border closures, the foundation has been unable to bring children to Australia, as the waiting list of children in ‘dire’ conditions waiting for surgery in Australia grows.

“It’s getting them across the border that’s the problem, it’s not actually getting them here,” Ms Pickering said.

Closures have also meant children staying at the retreat have been delayed in returning home.

The retreat is designed to help the children recover from surgery and give them a sense of home and family while they heal, typically for six months before they return home.

But Ms Pickering and assistant manager Judy Goss, who rotate shifts with several volunteers, said they had gone from looking after many children to just four, who had been there for nearly a year or more.

“Normally we’d have children running around here, the noise levels would be up through the roof, that would be a normal day at the retreat,” Ms Pickering said.

One retreat resident from Papua New Guinea, who has been away from home for more than a year, has been unable to return home as she is under 16 and ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“PNG’s saying that they have to be COVID vaccinated to get back into the country, but we just don’t know how feasible that is,” Ms Pickering said.

Despite the challenges, Ms Pickering said it was an honour to be helping the children and that the staff remained committed to their mission to bring more to Kilmore.

“We feel privileged to be doing what we’re doing, we just think we’re so fortunate to be able to help these kids,” she said.

“They come and they don’t speak English but they learn so quickly they leave us for dead – it’s amazing to see how much they change once they warm up to you.”

The retreat is seeking further donations for housing maintenance and to cover living costs for the children, as well as provide them with medicine and supplies for their journeys home.

“When they come they come with just a little bag of clothes, we send them home with a suitcase full, every person that comes here,” Ms Pickering said.

“And they can choose to take things for their family members, like at Christmas they all got a $50 voucher to Kmart … and [one child] bought all her family a pair of shoes.”

The foundation has a wish list of urgently needed items, which currently includes warm coats and shoes, nappies, period products and a clothes drier, as well as funding to go towards new toilets, a new surface for the retreat’s sports area, and shade covering for the outdoor play area.

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