Tim Conolan founded the TLC for Kids charity in 1998, after hearing that really sick children were falling through the gaps of existing services. He wanted to do something practical to provide support – emotional and otherwise – when families need it most.
“My concept was having a charity that encouraged other charities to do a bit more,” he told us when we caught up recently.
And while the organisation has had its ups and downs, getting down to “our last $94 in the account” at one stage, this is nothing compared with the ups and downs that families with a terminally ill child go through. Through TLC for Kids, Tim’s aim is to make the journey a little easier for families and sick children, and he’s achieving it, with the organisation supporting families in some way 11.9 million times since 1996.
“TLC follows the journey of the child with any kind of ill health. From seriously, to chronically to terminally ill - it’s about empowering the child,” Tim explained.
TLC for Kids offers three key services. The first helps lessen the traumatic impact of hospital trips by helping children get through a medical procedure or test by providing curated ‘Distraction Boxes’, with items to help regulate or decrease heartrate and anxiety - and they’re not just for children.
“Often it’s the parent that is under the most stress of all when their child is having a procedure. The distraction box has helped distract patients and their carers.”
The second service - the Rapid TLC program – is a referral system for free emotional and practical support for sick children in need, and their families. Requests are responded to immediately and actioned within 24-48 hours, from sourcing a new appliance for a family, to paying for funeral expenses.
Finally there’s the TLC Ambulance - a fully functional but special ambulance retrofitted with medical equipment that provides special moments to children in palliative care by taking them on one last trip with their families. Ambulance Victoria paramedics volunteer to drive, ensuring that if something were to go wrong, they can intervene.
“The idea was to get kids out of hospital for a period, to experience something they miss or wish to see, with their family around them. It's about creating memories and making a very sad and difficult time a bit happier,” Tim said.
In the 2021 Community Grants round, Freemasons Foundation Victoria granted $50,000 towards a TLC Ambulance fit-out and meeting the operational costs associated with the ambulance for one year.
The ambulance is customised in a number of ways – firstly, of course, it's colourful and fun, to make kids happy and make medical equipment less obvious. It’s also higher than a regular ambulance, meaning a person of average height can stand up, and there’s space for family members, without feeling claustrophobic. To ensure families and children can truly experience the trip and be in the moment, there are even cameras on board, and discreet, sensitive photography is taken during the trip, without families worrying about capturing the memory.
The first ambulance was put into service in 2019, although with COVID, it’s been off the road a lot since then. However, 2022 has seen the service really taking off. They aim to have four ambulances in different areas of Victoria, so that there’s always one close to where it’s needed.
Tim and the team stressed how much they value any support from philanthropic foundations and donors, but especially the long-term partnerships.
“People who say we’ll get behind you, it means we can help more kids straight away.”
In March, FFV Chairman Rodney Lavin, Deputy Chair Philip Mayers AM and Executive Officer Neil Cripps had the pleasure of visiting the team at TLC for Kids at their office in Brunswick.
“It’s very sad that we need this service, but it’s the kind of thing we love to support. It fits in with the values of our Foundation, and hearing the story of how TLC for Kids came to be, Tim deserves a medal,” said Mr Lavin.
Happily, Tim won Australian of the Year Local Hero in 2014 for his work at TLC for Kids, so that’s already covered.
If you would like to support other projects like this, you can donate to FFV.