Inglewood mother of five Rayleen Watts says she has no idea where she would be without the support of BUSHKids. Photo Michael Cormack / Warwick Daily News
Inglewood mother of five Rayleen Watts says she has no idea where she would be without the support of BUSHKids. Photo Michael Cormack / Warwick Daily News Michael Cormack

80 years of reaching out to kids in the Bush

BORN decades apart, Robert Spencer, Rayleen Watts and Emerson Flecker share a common bond thanks to a little organisation with a massive heart.

They are just three of the 45,000 kids helped by the Queensland Royal Bush Children's Health Scheme (BUSHkids) since it opened its doors 80 years ago.

The dream of then Queensland governor Leslie Orme Wilson, the service kicked off in 1935 to provide vital support for rural and regional youngsters with serious medical needs and/or disabilities.

Receiving treatment at nearby hospitals, the children stayed at beach-side homes in Maryborough, Redcliffe, Emu Park and Hervey Bay.

These homes - which would become registered hospitals supported by successive state governments - meant the financial burden on families was kept to a minimum while their children soaked up the recuperative benefits of the salt water and fresh ocean air.

In the early years, children from every corner of Queensland would gather at their nearest train station, waiting patiently for Red Cross volunteers to take them - often by bus - to the homes for treatment.

Robert Spencer was one of those kids.

The boy from Nagoorin, near Gladstone, was born with ectrodactyly - or lobster syndrome - which left him with deformities of one hand and both feet.

Their first-born child's condition was a huge shock for parents Mabel and father Bill, Robert's sister Betty Mergard said.

With seven mouths to feed, meeting the costs of ongoing surgery in Brisbane and special shoes to fit the boy's feet was a massive impost on Mr and Mrs Spencer's meagre 1940s' household budget.

BUSHkids came to their aid - paying for Robert to travel to the city for multiple surgeries, accommodating, feeding, clothing and educating him while he stayed at the organisation's Redcliffe home and even making sure he had specially designed hand-made shoes.

"There was one really big long toe and one smaller toe - like a crab or lobster claw," Mrs Mergard said of her eldest brother's disability.]

Robert William Spencer
Robert William Spencer Contributed

"Because his feet were growing so wide, the doctors had to narrow them.

"He basically lived there (in Redcliffe) while they removed bones."

It was not easy being away from his family, but Mrs Mergard said her brother did the best he could.

"One of the biggest problems was the sense of rejection he had from the isolation of being away from his family," the 77-year-old great grandmother said.

"There was no way around it because our mother would have to stay home to look after the younger children.

"He got on with life but underneath he was sad about going away from home."

Robert endured many years of medical treatment but - against the odds - he grew into a strapping young man known for his horsemanship.

When he finished school he worked for the railway building bridges.

The labour was hard and Robert and his workmates had no idea the product they sealed the bridges with was made from a cancer-causing chemical.

He died at 43 - 10 months after his only child Roberta was born.

Mrs Mergard, who now calls Agnes Waters home, said without BUSHkids her brother would have been unable to walk.

"If he hadn't of been able to go to the Bush Children's Health Scheme I don't know what would have happened - how he would have had the operations?," she said.

"It was incredible really that there was a facility in those days - it made an impossibility possible through the fact that my brother could have the surgical treatment that he needed and while he was there he got to go to school."

Fast forward 40 years to a time when Queen, Michael Jackson and KC and the Sunshine Band ruled the airwaves, Ronald Reagan was Time Magazine's man of the year, the Rubik's Cube was the hottest toy on the planet and a small flick called the Empire Strikes Back was setting the box office alight.

Inglewood mother of five Rayleen Watts is grateful for the help of Sue Clarke and the BUSHKids team. Photo Michael Cormack / Warwick Daily News
Inglewood mother of five Rayleen Watts is grateful for the help of Sue Clarke and the BUSHKids team. Photo Michael Cormack / Warwick Daily News Michael Cormack

1980 was a hard year for Rayleen Watts .

The 10-year-old Killarney girl shared a loving home with her six siblings and her parents Phyllis and Geoff.

But school was a nightmare.

She had trouble concentrating, retaining information was a nightmare and getting through classes was a huge struggle.

"I couldn't read or write," Ms Watts said.

"It was pretty tough watching other people do that - I just couldn't do it."

As their daughter lost her confidence, Mr and Mrs Watts decided enough was enough and contacted BUSHkids.

"They tested my eyes and I had learning difficulties and they (BUSHkids) picked that up," Ms Watts said.

"I went to Redcliffe to get help.

"I stayed there for about 12 weeks."

While the time away from her family was hard, Ms Watts has some happy memories of her stay by the sea.

"I liked it down there," she said.

"They helped me a lot and the home was right next to the beach.

"It was my first time to see the beach - I loved it."

Ms Watts left Warwick High School at the end of year nine for a job in a local cafe.

Her relationship with BUSHkids has lasted 35 years and it set her up to take on her biggest challenge - motherhood.

"They helped me raise my kids," the Inglewood mother of four sons and one daughter said.

Ms Watts' eldest child has attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"BUSHkids picked up a lot of things that were wrong with him," she said.

"He's doing pretty good now.

"He's got his licence and everything."

BUSHkids 1930s. Children prepare to baord the BUSHkids bus. Photo Contributed
BUSHkids 1930s. Children prepare to baord the BUSHkids bus. Photo Contributed Contributed

Since the 1990s, BUSHkids' model of care and services have changed to meet the needs of modern communities.

The beach-side homes no longer exist, but in their place is a program of community-based therapy and family support services operating from centres in Bundaberg, Dalby, Emerald, Inglewood, Mount Isa, Warwick and Brisbane.

It will soon offer services in Kingaroy, Nanango, Agnes Water, Miriam Vale and Stanthorpe.

The new approach means children like Emerson Flecker have access to speech pathology, occupational therapy, psychology and family support services without having to leave home for long periods.

Emerson, seven, and her five-year-old sister Scarlett are Natalie Flecker's pride and joy.

The Mt Isa mother's world revolves around her daughters.

"Emerson was a very gregarious, outgoing and highly articulate toddler," Ms Flecker said of her first-born child.

"When she started speaking, she virtually jumped from sounds to sentences - she skipped the whole learner speaker stage."

Ms Flecker said her friends often commented on the then two-year-old's conversational abilities.

"Thinking good talkers are good learners, we assumed Emerson would find school and learning an absolute breeze," she said.

"Sadly she hasn't."

Realising Emerson had serious literacy problems, the 35-year-old turned to BUSHkids for support and help.

The service provided 10 weeks of occupational therapy and Emerson will soon receive speech therapy.

"We met and discussed Emerson's needs and she's happily and successfully engaged with the BUSHkids team ever since," Ms Flecker said.

"(I have) great peace of mind in seeing Emerson begin to again see herself as a successful learner."

Ms Flecker said the story would have had a different ending without BUSHkids.

"In hindsight, I realise that Emerson's introversion directly correlates with her increasingly severe language and reading issues," she said.

"My confident, outgoing toddler slowly, and imperceptibly, morphed into an anxious, nervous child for whom the thought of any public performance made her physically sick.

"Certainly we would not be as far along the remediation path as we currently are."