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Lifeline Canberra announces 2016’s Women of Spirit

Amanda Whitley

This afternoon, Lifeline Canberra revealed its Women of Spirit 2016.

Each year for the past 10 years, Lifeline Canberra has recognised the extraordinary resilience of Canberra women through their Lifeline Women of Spirit Awards. The awards pay tribute to “women who have faced adversity and have found within them the strength, not just to persevere but to give others a helping hand,” says Chief Executive Officer, Carrie-Ann Leeson.

“Their stories help to humble us and inspire us to find that strength each day.”

Woman of Spirit

Deborah Evans

Deborah Evans, proud Gidja/Djaru woman and survivor of the Stolen Generation, was named this year’s Woman of Spirit. Deborah grew up in a non-Aboriginal household where she was treated very badly, and has devoted her life to educating Aboriginal people in schools, prisons and in the community, particularly championing Aboriginal causes in the justice system.

Concerned about the increasing ration of Aboriginal incarceration, Deborah established Tjilari Justice, a child advocacy and rights organisation and early intervention and crime prevention initiative. She is now campaigning for the establishment of an independent child advocacy service including counselling and support for children.

Rising Woman of Spirit

tash-award

The winner of the Rising Woman of Spirit Award is someone close to my heart, so please indulge me while I share her story. You see, I — along with our dear friend, Barb Fisher — nominated this incredible woman, and I am so happy to see her get the recognition she so richly deserves.

Natasha Maguire, known to her friends as ‘Tash’ is one of those rare souls who always thinks of others, even when in the depths of her own personal tragedy.

The worst possible news

Tash’s second child, Maya, was born in December 2011 with Rhabdomyosarcoma—a rare form of childhood cancer, never seen before in a newborn baby in Australia. From that moment onwards, the lives of Tash, her husband Mark and their young daughter Amelia’s changed completely. You can read Maya’s journey here.

Maya’s illness required surgery in Sydney, followed by chemotherapy from within a couple of weeks of being born. This was not entirely successful, and more surgery and radical radiation followed—something Tash had to fight tooth and nail for, as the doctors were not 100% in agreement that it would be successful. Tash never, ever gave up fighting for her child. The doctors finally agreed to pursue radiation therapy for Maya at Tash’s insistence.

Throughout this whole time, Tash spent much of her time in Sydney with Maya, whilst somehow managing to keep the rest of her family in Canberra together and functioning. Despite all expectations, the radiation was successful. After many, many long months of fighting hard to keep her daughter alive, there was a brief reprieve when Maya was declared free of cancer for the first time in her little life. Some semblance of normal life was possible for the very first time since Maya had been born!

Maya’s central line was removed, giving her a new sense of freedom; she had a ‘Bath Day’ to celebrate, because she’d never been able to have one.

A couple of months into this wonderful time, the family was visiting friends in the Northern Territory for the very first time when Tash felt a lump on Maya’s thigh. Rushing back to hospital in Sydney, they received the unfortunate news that Maya’s cancer had returned, and with a vengeance. Scans showed two tumours in her thigh, and an extensive spread of tumours through her abdomen and chest—kidneys, lungs, and around the aorta.

Still fighting for her child every step of the way, Tash managed to get Maya accepted on a new drug trial—but unfortunately Maya became too unwell to be able to start the course of treatment.

Doing something for others

Not one to wallow in her own self pity, Tash decided there must be something she could do to make the lives of seriously ill children better, to make their often long stays in hospital all the more enjoyable. She established Warming Beautiful Souls, a charity that accepts donations of clothes, toys and gifts for babies and children of all ages to enjoy during their hospital visits.

Originally only based in Canberra, Tash has expanded the network to all major centres of Australia, working tirelessly to ensure that others who have to endure the same experiences they did, may do so with a few more smiles along the way.

Only a few months after Maya’s relapse, just days before her second birthday, Maya passed away peacefully, just as gorgeous and cheeky and smiley as she always was, right to the very end.

“You took one last breath, I can still hear it now;
you’d enriched our lives in a way no one will ever understand how.
We will celebrate your life as you deserve such a way, you inspired each person you met.”

From the day Maya was born, Tash’s life became solely about her sick child, fighting for her life every single day. Days, weeks and months spent in hospital wards. For two entire years, she dedicated every waking moment to her family.

After Maya’s passing in November 2013, Tash didn’t simply forget about the other amazing families they had met along the way. She has worked tirelessly on turning Warming Beautiful Souls into a sizeable charity that makes a real difference to others in the very situation she herself was thrown into two years earlier.

But the Maguires still wanted to do more.

Maya’s Rest

Whilst Maya was sick, the family found respite at Bear Cottage, a children’s hospice centre in Sydney.  Maya loved it there, it was a place that helped take away the pain and helped her feel like herself again.

“Living in Canberra, we had to travel for five hours to Bear Cottage in Manly for respite and end of life care,” says Tash.

“Without the support we received there we would not have been able to make it through the difficult times and would not have had the chance to make a lot of the wonderful memories we made, while the daily demands of life were taken care of.”

It was the desire to offer families in the Canberra district a similar reprieve that was the driving force behind Maya’s Rest’, a home that Tash and Mark have purpose-built to offer non-medically assisted respite for families of children who are undergoing active treatment for life threatening illnesses.

“It’s a peaceful place families can escape to, where they will be given a comfortable place to stay, provided with meals and optional activities to allow them to concentrate on spending time together and making precious memories,” says Tash.

“They will be invited into the home of a family who knows firsthand how hard the journey they are on can be. We would like to offer respite to families that are finding it difficult to cope and need a few days to think about nothing but each other.”

Out of their own pockets

Set on 12 acres, just outside Yass with beautiful views over the valley, Maya’s Rest is offered free of charge to approved families, like a B&B but with no costs involved and all meals provided. Tash and Mark are working with the local community to offer optional activities at the house for the families, such as music therapy sessions, craft, and baby animal visits.

Maya’s Rest is privately owned and operated and is not a charity or non for profit organisation. In other words, Tash and Mark have financed (and will continue to finance) its operation.

“Your presence was simply too great to ignore, so we will celebrate your life, like never before. Some people may wonder how we will get through, but our drive to enjoy life is our honour to you.”

An inspiration in many ways

From a personal perspective, Tash has been an inspiration…not only in terms of the strength and selflessness she demonstrated throughout Maya’s life, but in modelling how life should be celebrated.

When Maya died, friends and family were invited to attend her ‘celebration of life’. It was an event where people danced and sang and shared happy memories of a little girl who had touched so many lives.

In the days that followed Maya’s death, Tash, Mark and Amelia hit the road in the new motorhome they had bought with plans of the four of them making lasting memories; instead, they took some time to recalibrate and adapt to their ‘new normal’.

Rather than ‘going silent’, Tash continued to talk to Maya through the Facebook page she had set up to keep friends and family appraised of Maya’s battle. This enabled people to share the grieving process, to voice their own emotions and memories, and Maya’s spirit to live on.

Tash is my hero. I have never met anyone so remarkable, so generous, so humble and so strong. She is a deserving woman of spirit.

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Amanda Whitley

Amanda Whitley is the founder and director of HerCanberra. In her 'spare time', she instructs zumba, loves to cook (and eat), and wrangles two gorgeous little girls. She's done everything from present the tv news to operate a stop and go sign and is passionate about connecting Canberra women. More about the Author

  • Barb Fisher

    So, so proud of you Tash. xxxxx

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