28 February 2024

Dedicated volunteers give cancer patients a lift with restored mobility aids for $1

| Michele Tydd
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Three men standing near a van.

Illawarra Cancer Care volunteer tradesmen (from left) Barry Lewis, Bruce Benoit and Kevin Burke. Photo: Margot Benoit.

Fifteen years ago, Illawarra Cancer Care volunteer Keith Wilson came up with the idea of leasing a few donated wheelchairs to cancer patients for a one-off sum of $1 plus $19 delivery.

For machines that can cost more than $30,000 new, that flicked a switch.

The program took off and quickly broadened to cover a range of transport machines and support devices from motorised scooters to walkers and shower seats.

But so far, little light has been shone on the small but highly skilled team of retired tradesmen who meticulously restore, repair and deliver the items to grateful cancer patients.

Bruce Benoit, 68, from Flinders, is a former fitter and turner, motor mechanic and driver.

“We meet most Mondays in a shed allocated to us by Alan Ross at Ross Transport in Port Kembla,” says Bruce.

“The rest of the team comprises Brian, a former painter and docker who is a jack of all trades, Barry, an electrical engineer, Kevin a retired electrician and Keith, who was an electrician and car dealer,” says Barry.

“Some of the donated chairs and scooters we get have not been in use for long and are in good condition, while others need specialised repair work.

READ ALSO Cancer survivors create social group to help support those slipping through the cracks

“The routine problems include tyres and batteries that need replacing, and some require bodywork as well.

“Before we deliver, we test drive every wheelchair and scooter to ensure everything is working as it should – and whether they need it or not, we clean every item so they leave the workshop gleaming.”

Bruce and the rest of the team are aware that what they do is not just about transport.

“The wheelchairs and scooters are a huge boost to cancer patients who are often robbed of their independence and freedom,” he says.

“It gives them a lift to regain a measure of control over their lives.”

Without hesitation, Bruce says what he enjoys most are the deliveries.

“The response is usually excitement and gratitude, and it’s not just from the person receiving the item but the whole family,” says Bruce.

“I recall one lady who didn’t know her scooter was coming — she was in tears, her husband was in tears and even I was in tears.

“There was another lady who only used her scooter twice to go shopping, before she passed away. Her husband later told me those two trips were gold.”

The program also helps children who, for safety reasons, are not eligible to receive the motor scooters until they reach 18.

“They still get excited with their wheelchairs,” says Bruce. “We had one little girl aged about eight who was thrilled with her hot pink chair, but sadly she passed away soon after delivery.

READ ALSO Illawarra Cancer Carers donate more than a million dollars to support local research

“A little boy about the same age was keen to have it but he didn’t like the colour, so we spray-painted it black and he was stoked.”

Keith Wilson, reflecting on the program, says the Illawarra community has played a major part in its success with donations which keep stock at a plentiful level.

“Alan Ross and the charity Convoy have also been outstanding,” says Keith.

“Convoy has given us our own van and truck. They don’t just give us anything, they always ask what we need, which is a great help.”

Keith recently discovered the extent of the program’s reach when a Catholic nun, Sister Mary, in Bathurst phoned to offer two wheelchairs belonging to the parish priest who had recently died.

“It was a bit far for us to go so I suggested she find somebody in her region who might need them, but she found a driver willing to transport the chairs not only to the Illawarra but to our house,” he says.

And as for his fix-it team, Keith could not be prouder.

He acknowledges with a laugh that their collective skills could be used to rebuild a jet or an Aston Martin sportscar “but sometimes it’s good to just give back to the community”.

For more information click here, or visit the group on Facebook.

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