An idyllic, bayside location is the perfect spot for one of Victoria's great unsung institutions for children. John Gascoigne reports.
Queenscliff has always charmed its visitors. A photograph in the information centre on the main shopping strip of Hesse Street shows a giant paddle steamer churning its way from Port Melbourne to Queenscliff in the late 19th century. Aboard were up to 1500 holidaymakers bound for guest houses and pubs in the fishing village at the western tip of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay.
Sandy beaches, screeching gulls, five charming Victorian-era hotels and the absence of parking meters and franchised fast food stores still represent SeaChange escapism to the weary urbanite.
Long reconciled to having a plainer image than ritzy Portsea at the opposite entrance to the bay, Queenscliff is the perfect location for one of Victoria's great unsung institutions for children: the Cottage by the Sea.
The two-storey house was built in the early 1890s at the behest of two women, a Miss Calder, of Melbourne, and Mrs G.H. Hitchcock, of Geelong, who made it the home of the Ministering Children's League.
Known as Cottage by the Sea from its opening in 1895, it initially provided care and accommodation for children recovering from illness. Today, under the guidance of Tony Featherston, it continues to provide short-term relief care in a holiday environment to children in need.
Skilled in setting up recreation programs after 12 years of helping to establish and run eight YMCAs in Queensland and Alice Springs, Featherston was a perfect fit for the cottage and its burgeoning needs when he headed up its staff two years ago.
Imbued with a passion to help people gain fulfilment and equality, he recalls that one of his happiest memories of the Alice was the daily spectacle of white and black children playing together. He once overheard a conversation in which a white boy, 5, asked his black mate, "How come you're black and I'm white?" The reply: "That's because I was born in the night-time and you were born in the day."
At lunch on his first day at the cottage, in 2001, he heard a very different conversation. Asking a sevenyear- old boy where he was from, he was told " ... from Shepparton, and I'm here because I found my father ... 'he'd hung himself in our shed. It was a little bit worse coz that day was my birthday."
The little girl next to Featherston volunteered: "I'm from Moe. I live with my mum. She was in a car accident and she's paralysed from the waist down. She's somewhere else at the moment and that's why I'm here."
Another boy said, "I'm from Richmond and I'm down here coz my mum and dad are drug addicts and they were injecting me with the drugs so I got taken out of home."
"It shocked me," says Featherston. "I never asked another child why they were here."
It's enough, he says, to know they've arrived for an escape, a holiday, an adventure that will lift their self-esteem.
"It may be just that they're being bullied at school. But that's at the easier end of the scale.
Featherston acknowledges "there's a story behind every child".
The 12 carers assigned to the children are qualified in child care, youth and social work and, says Featherston, they are more than just facilitators of fun and adventure. "They let the children know they're important and valued."
The cottage's budget, to provide short holidays for its 650 child guests who arrived in endless waves in 2002- 03, was $800,000. Each intake, for a stay of up to 11 days, is restricted to, at most, 28 Victorian children ranging in age from five to 12.
While the children are blissfully ignorant of the ever-expanding wages, expenses and insurance premiums that pay to bring some joy to their hard lives, Featherston, as chancellor of the exchequer, is painfully aware of a bill rising by almost $10,000 a year. He also commands an army of 160 volunteers who make up seven cottage branches beavering away at paying those bills, without a cent of government help.
The five to nine-year-olds form mixed groups for their adventures. The 10 to 12-year-olds are segregated and take on more adventurous activities, including rock-climbing and abseiling in Geelong.
Featherston lists 30 fun activities and destinations the children may share in, but the problems of some of the children quickly bubble to the surface.
When a 12-year-old girl ran out of the cottage and down Flinders Street, which leads past the front gate into town, it wasn't that she wanted to escape the camp. It was the night before her return home and, when her peers caught her and returned with her, she explained it was that prospect she was running from. After eight days, she stayed on for a further camp while, as Featheston says, "other things were arranged".
The incident troubled Featherston, who says: "The organisation needs to do more than it's doing. We need to get more kids who need a holiday here to have a break, and we need to make the community more aware of the value of kids, and the need for good parenting." After just a week in the job, Featherston was struck by the children's resilience.
"Regardless of what was happening in their home life, while the kids were here, you wouldn't know.
They're soon playing, laughing and shouting with their new friends."
The transformation forms a large part of the rewards experienced daily by Featherston and his colleagues, who form an impressive apex for the seven supporting branches on the peninsula and in Melbourne whose members never stop organising festivals, balls, dances, stalls, sports days, car rallies and raffles.
But at least four times in its 113 years, the bottom line of the cottage's balance sheet has been red, with last rites drawn up. The last time it happened, in 1985, the whole Bellarine Peninsula drew together to save the cottage which, literally and figuratively, was at the cliff's edge. A decade later, a touching gift of $10,000 arrived as proceeds of the sale of assets of the parent league, which, in Surrey, England, had met the fate that Featherston, his nine-member board of directors, 160 volunteers and 32 paid staff stave off so gallantly.
"We're six months from closing if that funding stops," says Featherston's colleague, Tim McEvoy, who's in charge of the programs that, for a few precious days, lift the children out of their suburban privations.
For many children, the holiday provides their first sight of the ocean. As we leave the cottage, Pat Bellhouse, treasurer of the Queenscliff branch, arrives ahead of a coterie of women who will set to in the kitchen later in the day to make jams, sauces and pickles and fill hundreds of jars for the children and for the branch's annual fair in the cottage grounds on January 17. The group's target: to match the record $24,000 raised at last year's fair, which spearheaded the 18 branch members' annual effort of just over $50,000.
The children's visits are carefully planned, and no time is wasted. A carer waits for the children at Spencer Street station and chats to them on the 100-kilometre bus drive to Queenscliff. By the time they arrive, the carer will have matched faces to each of the names on a list, name tags being eschewed.
"When they leave here, we unfortunately don't have resources to follow up the children's progress," Featherston says. "Our main feedback is the thank-you letters and cards the children, their parents or guardians send, often saying, 'I feel better about myself, I know what I want to do when I grow up'.
"Often, it's been such fun, the children want to reproduce the experience as a carer."
A coup for Featherston was signing up Olympics 2000 hero Cathy Freeman as patron. Freeman made her fourth visit to the cottage last month and, says Featherston, enjoyed the children as much as they enjoyed her.Since the 2000 Games, the children have happily taken on the task of writing names-and-addresses for standardised replies to fan mail sent to swim stars Ian Thorpe and Grant
Hackett and tennis champion Lleyton Hewitt. Australia Post has provided free postage for the estimated 100,000 replies sent worldwide.
Occasionally, there's a knock on the door from someone in their 70s or 80s, timidly asking for a look through the Cottage by the Sea, recalling the bathrooms, the daily porridge. Indeed, Featherston was moved last year by a young law student who returned to tell him the cottage had provided his only childhood happiness.