Born in the tiny western Queensland town of Mitchell, raised in the bush towns of Cunnamulla and Charters Towers, and attending secondary school in the chilly climes of regional Queanbeyan, it’s little wonder that Lisa Rowe has an entrenched love and respect for the sanctity of community.
The CEO of the Sunshine Coast Health Foundation – now known as Wishlist – for nearly 20 years, she’s made a career out of rallying individuals and business for the betterment of countless local families who have mostly unwittingly reaped the rewards of her tireless efforts.
It’s a tenure that wasn’t planned, and nearly ended countless times, but for the support of those who believed in her most.
Single Mum to CEO
“I moved to the Sunshine Coast to be closer to my parents and a few years later I found myself as a newly single mother at just 27,” Lisa said.
“I’d been working from home as a copywriter and then took on a role with Child Safety but after five years in there I was becoming quite disillusioned with the day to day realities of the role.
“Around this time I saw an ad in the Saturday paper for a fundraising coordinator with the Sunshine Coast Health Foundation.
“I got the job and started in 2001 and while I was completely out of my comfort zone I really did fall in love with the work.”
However, the opportunity presented itself during what was to become one of Lisa’s most challenging life chapters.
“I was a single Mum to a little girl and my greatest support – my own Mum – was battling cancer."
“It was such an intense time, but my Mum rallied for me the whole way. She knew I had to grab the chance with both hands and told me so.”
Regardless, in her first year with the Foundation, Lisa resigned three separate times.
“I was working such incredibly long hours and there were so many times I just couldn’t get away to be with Mum,” she remembered.
“I wanted my Mum and my daughter to be my priorities and yet I know I dropped a few balls, to my great regret to this day.
“Every time I resigned it was knocked back. Usually with a gentle reminder that I couldn’t afford to leave a perfectly good job with a child to provide for.”
That perfectly good job quickly grew in to a new position within the organisation.
“After a year in the fundraising role the charity’s General Manager left, and the Foundation’s Board agreed that I was the perfect candidate,” Lisa said.
“It’s a decision that I still can’t quite believe to this day.”
“We are all so vulnerable – you can think everything is running along smoothly and then in a second you enter a world you never knew existed.”Lisa Rowe
No place like home
Since the management role was first offered nearly 20 years ago, Lisa Rowe had led her team of charity colleagues to support some of the Sunshine Coast’s greatest pieces of health infrastructure.
“When I jumped in to the hot seat at Wishlist the Health Service gave us a project to really get the charity on the map and more well known,” Lisa said.
“They tasked us with raising $1.5-million to build a cancer centre to replace the dated oncology ward on the bottom floor of the Nambour Hospital.
“We ended up raising $1.7-million and the Centre opened in 2006. A beautiful, light-filled space with top of the range medical equipment and facilities. The extra money we raised went towards the building of Reed House – a temporary accommodation facility next door to the Nambour Hospital for family members with a loved one undergoing medical care.
“Named after the man responsible for the development, Harry Reed, the house was supported by some of the Coast’s most charitable individuals and businesses and to this day is run completely by volunteers and funded by ongoing community support – it’s a very special place.”
It was also where Lisa met her now partner, Tony, who was then working for Red Cross at the time and involved in the project.
“He’s a good man and we both know the importance of our roles in the community – it’s just another reason Reed House holds such a special place in my heart.”
The need for affordable accommodation when a health crisis hits is a situation keenly known by Lisa Rowe.
“Accommodation is one of those things that when you’re in a health crisis it is fundamental to the family being able to provide support to their loved ones. It keeps all of them alive and able to survive,” she said.
“I learnt from a very early age how fragile life can be and how a great life can turn on a dime.
“We are all so vulnerable – you can think everything is running along smoothly and then in a second you enter a world you never knew existed.”
When Lisa was 11 her brother, just two years younger than her, started complaining of a sore neck.
“We’d not long moved to Queanbeyan from Charters Towers when Mum ended up taking him to the doctors who told us we needed to get him to a specialist in Sydney.
“We learned he had a benign but aggressive spinal tumour that had a scary prognosis. He had surgery and was put in a halo brace. During that time my other siblings and I were schooled at a tiny makeshift school room at the Royal North Shore hospital and we all stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Camperdown.
“I remember seeing Mum crying on the shoulder of another lady who was also grappling with the reality that she too might lose her son. There’s so much comfort in that – having the support of strangers who are living the same nightmare as you.”
The House The Coast Built
That’s why, when Lisa Rowe, her Wishlist team and the charity’s long-time partner Ausmar Homes officially launched ‘The House The Coast Built’ legacy project at the start of 2019, it wasn’t just another media call. It was personal.
“We have built houses before – with every single aspect of the house build completely donated by contractors and trades and suppliers – and then they’re auctioned off to raise money for big ticket items for the Health Service,” Lisa said.
“This one is different. Thanks to the incredible and ongoing support of Mix FMs Give Me 5 For Kids campaign that has raised more than $5million to date, we were able to purchase a block of land within walking distance from the new Sunshine Coast University Hospital and we’re building a six-bedroom home to serve as crisis accommodation for families who find themselves with a sick loved one in hospital.
“Again, this house is being built completely from donated time and services and resources – from the slab being poured, to the fences being erected, to the roof, the paint, the furniture – literally the kitchen sink! It’s so much more than ‘just’ an accommodation facility. Just like Reed House, this is a legacy gift to families for decades on from now and that’s a joy to be a part of.”
Having recently turned 50, Lisa Rowe is full of insight and reflection on the life’s she led to date and all that’s yet to come.
“Like so many women, I live with regret and guilt. Regret that I should have been with my Mum more in her final years; regret that I could have done more as a mother.
“The life I led when my daughter was little was just crazy. I never did tuckshop duty or saw her run a cross country race, and sometimes she went off to school with no idea who was going to pick her up.
“She recently told me she has no recollection of that though. What she does remember is that I worked hard at a job I loved and that she never went without.
“We need to go easier on ourselves. We’re all just doing the best we can – the regret and guilt we carry around doesn’t serve anyone.
“At 50, it’s a great time to look back and think, ‘Hey, I’ve done ok!”
“I intend to make the most of every day. I don’t care if it’s cliched. It’s true – every healthy day is a gift.”
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