(Photo of Kate Fitzsimons and Jason Fullford courtesy of The Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation)
Now that the Australian holiday season is upon us, the focus is on time with family. For some this may involve travelling great distances to reunite with relatives. In my own extended clan a nephew flew back from competing in school basketball competitions in the USA. His sister also arrived home, from university in Edinburgh, Scotland for an injection of our Sydney summer (being a warm weather person, it will be a reluctant return to the chilly, damp northern hemisphere to continue her studies come mid-January!)
Everything comes to a standstill here by late December; our long Australian summer break heralded by the festive calendar. Long hot nights, much eating, socialising and relaxing stretch before us.
It is also a time for missing others – those who won’t be coming home, those who are no longer here.
I caught up with my colleague Julie Fitzsimons during the final days of our working year before the Christmas break. She shared the difficulty this season has on her family since her daughter Nicole was fatally injured in a motorbike accident in Thailand in October 2012, and the Christmases since without her.
24 year old Nicole had been holidaying with her fiancé Jamie. She was on the back of the motorbike that Jamie was driving. They were returning to their hotel after a restaurant meal nearby. Another motor cyclist who was travelling too fast clipped their bike as they turned into their hotel driveway. Nicole was thrown from the vehicle and passed away in a Thai hospital from head injuries three hours later.
This tragic incident led Julie and family to the inception of the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation (NFF).
Nicole – already a professional ballet dancer – was close to realising her dream of becoming a sports journalist at the time of her death, having just completed her studies. She was also a personal assistant for the Executive Producer of Channel 9’s The Footy Show, where she was highly regarded by her colleagues. Management dedicated their 20th season to her and her family when it aired the following March (in 2013). They also organised a memorial service to celebrate her life, at the home of her beloved St George Illawarra Rugby League Club on 2nd November where over 2000 people attended.
A documentary about Nicole’s life aired on the same network’s A Current Affair programme in December 2012. News of her untimely death reached far and wide.
Julie’s other daughter and Nicole’s younger sister, Kate, now works fulltime in the Foundation as its director. Kate won The Body + Soul Extraordinary Woman of the Year (motivation category) and Rockdale Young Citizen of the Year in recognition of her achievements, which have reached a growing audience. The Foundation website states:
Kate may only be one voice, but it is a voice that has travelled far and wide – it is a voice that has been heard by over 7,000* students at over 60 schools across Australia, it is a voice that has been featured in many national newspaper and magazine articles including Girlfriend, MindFood and the Sun Herald, a voice that has been interviewed in over 10 radio and TV interviews, and a voice that is followed by over 12,000 people on social media.
(*at the time of publishing this post Julie informs me that this figure has now reached 20,000)
Today the Fitzsimons family are very busy promoting the Foundation they have created in honour of their vibrant daughter and sister. Its focus is twofold: to give opportunities to other young people to live their lives to their full potential, and to teach high school students the potential dangers of international travel and the importance of travel insurance.
Sitting across me in the café near our workplace where we met for the interview, the tears flowed freely as Julie answered my questions. Despite the harrowing grief that she is forced to live with, Julie is a happy person, always willing to help others. I am grateful for her candour and for her readiness to share her story.
This is my experience of a mother who has lost something most precious:
When did you decide to start the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation? Was there a particular moment that you recall or was it the culmination of discussions within the family? Or was it due to the fact that people wanted to donate money after Nicole’s passing?
After we came back from Thailand to repatriate Nicole’s body I remember the house being full of flowers. I wanted to donate money that people had offered in memory of her but couldn’t find a charity that suited her personality, which represented who she was. I suggested starting our own charity to Vince my husband. He said it was too hard a task, especially in conjunction with organising her funeral.
Our son Matt was the first to become involved. Soon the enterprise was a family effort. The Foundation was launched at Nicole’s memorial service. White Lady Funerals put donation boxes out on our behalf. I didn’t really know at the outset where it would lead. It has been an amazing journey since.
The main thrust of the Foundation is to educate younger people of the dangers of travel via the Travel Safety Campaign advertised on its website. The Foundation also provides sport and dance scholarships. Did this happen organically or accidentally? Which came first?
Both concepts came about through research. The Travel Safety Campaign took first priority. We couldn’t believe that Nicole was allowed to get on a motorbike in Thailand without a helmet. She wouldn’t do that in Australia; she never rode a bike here. Kate started asking questions and began researching.
You have mentioned that the Foundation keeps Nicole in the family. Do you have a real sense of this?
Yes. We can talk about her even to people who have never met her, about her love of life, her interests and passions and about following her dreams.
Do you think that starting the Foundation has helped you work through your grief?
Definitely. I don’t know how I would have coped without it. There is always something to do. Though I don’t like the accounting bit much! We have expanded so quickly. The team now includes volunteers.
The website advertises a host of events, from ‘Bogan Bingo’ and Gala Balls to Golf Days. Poles apart! Where do the ideas come from?
‘Bogan Bingo’ was the brain child of a friend of Nicole’s. The Colourful Balls are very much in memory of Nicole – she used to love dancing. As you know she was a professional dancer before she decided on a career in journalism.
Nicole had accumulated plenty of contacts throughout her short life, primarily from her dancing career and her journalism degree and work. The golf days are the brainchild of my husband Vince. All of our activities end up being a group effort. We have regular board meetings and fund raising meetings. Sometimes our volunteers will run events completely from start to finish – for example the Barefoot Bowls Days in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley north of Sydney.
You must be extremely proud of your other daughter Kate. How does she keep going? Do you ever worry about her commitment to the Foundation?
I know she is committed but she doesn’t get paid much and still lives at home. This isn’t a sustainable situation. Kate is pursuing opportunities to subsidise her income in both fitness and television presenting.
You have become an expert at writing grants! How difficult has it been to secure support and funding?
I just write from my heart. We had to wait until we had a DGR status (Deductable Gift Recipient) before we applied for our first grant. People are very generous.
(In the space of our lunch interview Julie revealed two new donations in the last week, one from a regional dance school in NSW which raised $1000. The other was a private donor who was very impressed with the Travel Safety presentation and donated $10 000). Most funds come from fundraising and donations Kate receives from schools when presenting. In 2016 there will be a fee for Kate to present as she is now travelling wide and far and this will increase the longevity of Nicole’s Foundation.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) donated $10,000 towards the Travel Safety video to educate high school students after I wrote a heartfelt letter to the Honourable Julie Bishop MP Minister for Foreign Affairs. Jetstar Airlines donated $15,000 in flights through their ‘Flying Start’ Grant and $15,000 towards video production. $48,000 has recently been donated from the St George Bank Foundation to establish a scholarship for Sydney Dance Company, our newest partner.
What other trials have you faced with regard to running the Foundation?
There have been more heart-warming experiences than trials! (answered in typical positive Julie style). Nicole wanted to create opportunities for regional dancers. She was always grateful for what she got and for what she was able to achieve in her very short lifetime.
Have there been any cherished moments since you started the Foundation that stand out for you?
Jason Fullford comes immediately to mind. He was born with Down syndrome. He has been raised by his dad since age of two, downsizing his work commitments over the years as Jason’s sporting ability and interest grew. Jason’s dream was to compete in basketball in the Special Olympics Programme and hopefully be selected to compete in the World Special Olympics Games in Los Angeles in 2016. Has now become one of our ambassadors.
Also the volunteer family who ran the Golf Day in Newcastle. Kate is now godmother to their first child. They were inspired by the story behind the Foundation when they read about it on the internet.
What do you hope for the future of the Foundation?
To continue to honour Nicole’s legacy through grants. And to make travel safety part of the school curriculum. The campaign has recently been added to Crossroads Year 11 subject for all Australian high schools. And to spread the message beyond our shores. We had our first presentation in New Zealand in November 2015, at ACG Parnell College Auckland.
Also to inform people so that they don’t have to experience what we have been through. If we even save one family from the heartache we live with it is all worth it.
I applaud Julie and her family for overturning their grief to reveal a glimmer of light underneath, for showing others what can be accomplished, and for creating a legacy in the name of an exceptional human being whose life was cut so tragically short. As a mother myself, I can’t imagine the depth of the loss Julie feels every day.
Post Script: Kate’s Mission was aired on Channel 9’s A Current Affair programme on Friday 1st January 2016 under the banner Australia’s New Year Heroes. It was introduced as “the story of a determined young woman who works tirelessly to make sure every young traveller gets home safely”.