Having baked for royalty and blocked floods, Joe loves his unpaid job
Volunteer Joe Stanioch has worked at Bear Cottage children’s hospice in Sydney for about 13 years. In that time he has made lamingtons for a royal visit, saved the hospice from flooding and stood in as chief cook. The jack-of-all trades gives an insight into the unpaid job he loves.
How did you come to volunteer for Bear Cottage?
I was in the NSW Police Force for 32 years. I left on medical grounds in 2002. I took 12 months off, but I knew I had to do something to keep myself busy. In the police, I spent 10 years working in the area of investigating child abuse, so I knew quite a few of the doctors at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. I asked them if there were any volunteer positions available. Within weeks I was offered a position at Bear Cottage as they needed a maintenance person.
I pictured Bear Cottage being in Westmead, not far from where I live, so I agreed. When I found out it was in Manly, I said “I don’t go that far for my holidays”. Normally, it takes me about two hours to get to Manly in peak traffic. It seemed a long drive when I started but now I’m used to the slow journey.
I go to Bear Cottage two full days a week, or more if needed. Since I started I have averaged about 1000 hours of volunteering each year.
Bear Cottage has such a great sense of community. It feels like a family.
What work have you done at Bear Cottage?
I started filling in as their maintenance person for a few months. I learned bits and pieces about fixing things from my dad when growing up, and the rest I figured out on the job.
About six years ago both cooks left at the same time, by coincidence. So for several months, seven days a week, I cooked the lunches and dinners. I still do some cooking these days when the opportunity arises.
Two years ago, when we had the royal visit, I made lamingtons and scones. I tried them out first on the security staff who were sent out several months earlier. They were happy with them, so I made them for Prince William and Duchess Kate. I wanted to bake them something Aussie for afternoon tea. The visit was a great day for the Bear Cottage community.
So you’re really a jack-of-all-trades?
When I started we only had about 20 volunteers, so I chipped in and did everything. I did things such as laundry, cleaning, transport, cooking, photography, painting, lawns and anything else that came up, but not nursing. Over the years Bear Cottage has flooded several times in severe storms, and everyone has helped in the cleaning up, but from the lessons we learnt from previous floods, I took remedial action. I managed to stop the place flooding a few times during bad storms which followed.
The place has really grown since I started, going from strength to strength. We now have 150 volunteers so the workload is now shared and not as arduous.
What have you learned over that time?
When I was cooking, I would hear the mothers in the dining room discussing their child’s diagnosis and doctors. I could see how much they needed all of that valuable networking. At home they are so busy caring for their child that they don’t get to share their problems and are isolated.
I’ve learned how much Bear Cottage is there not only for the children but the whole family unit. Sometimes the whole family come in and the support they receive means that mum and dad can be parents again, rather than full time carers.
We provide respite for families, as well as end-of-life care. Parents can trust in the care offered at Bear Cottage, so they are able to drop their child off and go on a much-needed holiday to recharge their batteries.
After a child dies, Bear Cottage still has contact with the families. Siblings can go away on camps or holidays together. It means everyone in the group has something in common and they can communicate with someone who knows what they’re going through. We also offer mum camps, dad camps and grandparent camps where they can get together, share their experiences, support one another and most importantly have fun.
Has working in a hospice taken an emotional toll on you?
Initially, when I started investigating child abuse in the police I used to get a bit emotional. But after a while you toughen up, knowing that there are other victims out there seeking your help, so you needed to remain strong.
Working at Bear Cottage opens your eyes to other people’s different needs and the hardships and suffering they go through. You get to know the people and it does affect you but you keep going. Once you walk outside those doors you try and leave it there.
Over the years you get to know some of the families. Sometimes the children are here from a young age and they might visit over a period of 10 years or so before they pass away. Occasionally when they first come in, looking at the child, you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with them but over the years, sadly, you see them deteriorate.
You see the little fighters. I remember one little boy who was about two or three years old. The doctors thought he only had a week or two to live, but the little fighter kept going and it was five months before he passed away. Sometimes the kids seem to get a second wind when they come here.
It does affect you because you get to know the family and you wonder how the parents cope. Often, both dad and mum are here, at Bear Cottage, so I sometimes wonder how they survive if they are paying rent or a mortgage.
Bear Cottage is an emotional place but not a sad one. It is a fun place for the kids to come to. There are lots of games and activities that help to take their mind off their problems.
Before working here I didn’t realise that play therapy was a profession, but when you see what the play therapists do with the kids it is just fantastic. We also have music therapists and art therapists who are just tremendous, as are the nursing staff and other volunteers. It’s a team effort.
Tell us about the award you received a few years ago.
I received the Volunteers Supporting Palliative Care Award from Palliative Care NSW in 2015. Jillian Skinner, the then NSW Health Minister, presented it to me.
It was a great honour, but I’m just a small drop in a huge bucket of volunteers who are all just as deserving.
When I received the award I tried to plant a seed in the Health Minister’s mind, because Bear Cottage only works with children up to 18 years of age. I told her in my speech that it would be wonderful to have a palliative care facility built for adolescents in the future.
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