Oscar van Niekerk wins 2020 NSW Volunteer of the Year Awards

Oscar van Niekerk has lived with a chronic health condition since early childhood.

Diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at the age of three, Oscar has spent an enormous part of his life in hospital. He’s undergone numerous procedures and surgeries, encountered prolonged periods of time on nasogastric feeds, taken various medications and injections, and developed severe scoliosis and orofacial granulomatosis (swelling of the soft tissue around mouth and lips).

Despite his tough start to life, Oscar has shown that having a chronic health condition doesn’t limit his potential, but offers an opportunity to lead, promote hope and inspire others.

Hailing from Glenbrook, Oscar, aged 21 years old, was named winner of the 2020 NSW Volunteer of the Year Awards for the Blue Mountains region in the Young Adult Category.

Oscar was nominated for generously volunteering his time and energy to two hospital-run programs as part of the Sydney Children's Hospitals Network (SCHN): the Chronic Illness Peer Support (ChIPS) Program (ChIPS) and the Youth Advisory Council (YAC).

“As someone with a chronic condition, I find it important to have people around me that understand and are supportive of my condition, so feel very grateful to have received this award,” said Oscar.

“I’ve learnt that it’s crucial to reinforce the idea that young people with chronic conditions are not limited by their health condition and that they’re not alone in this journey. Life experiences such as going to school, getting a job and transitioning to the adult health system can be challenging and daunting for many young people with chronic conditions, but not impossible to achieve.

“The opportunities I’ve received through the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, specifically in my involvement with the ChIPS program, have enabled me to spread awareness about chronic conditions and have helped me develop into the person I am today,” said Oscar.

Having been a patient at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead for 15 years, ChIPS became a huge part of Oscar’s life. He joined the program when he was 14 years old and has been a peer leader for the past five years. In addition, he’s been a volunteer with YAC since 2017.

Part of his role as peer leader is to help create a positive, inclusive and supportive environment for other ChIPS members. Throughout his time as peer leader, he has helped co-facilitate introductory groups, assisted during camps and social events and activities, and spoken at various hospital events and external conferences.

“The ChIPS program is so beneficial for young people living with a chronic health condition as it provides opportunities for connection, enhancing social support and reducing social isolation. I can truthfully say that I have met many lifelong friends through the program that I would not have met otherwise,” Oscar said.

Ultimately, what’s so incredible about the work Oscar does is that it inspires other young people with chronic conditions to not let their health situation limit them and to use their experiences to make a positive change.

Oscar’s mum, Fiona, is profoundly proud of his achievements and ability to embrace his illness and continue marching forward.

“Oscar has had some wonderful experiences that, to be honest, he would never have had if he didn’t have a chronic illness,” said Fiona.

“Oscar’s been fortunate because he has always had great trust in the people around him and has been able to persevere unwaveringly through very difficult times. The ChIPS program has given Oscar the opportunity to not only gain further support and independence, but has provided him with a platform to give back to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead – a place that has played such an important role in his life,” said Fiona.

Oscar helped to develop an e-safety workshop for ChIPS when the program moved online in response to COVID-19 restrictions. He also dedicated hours of his own time to establish and run a ChIPS podcast to provide an accessible platform for health promotion and a space for youth to tell their stories. Oscar has also been a key driver in developing and hosting regular online games nights, enabling ChIPS members to continue to socialise due to social distancing measures.

“Oscar is a great asset to the ChIPS program and we are so proud of all his achievements. Winning this award is such a testament to his warm and generous nature and he is very deserving of this award," said Jourdan Hancock, ChIPS Coordinator at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

The NSW Volunteer of the Year Awards are an annual program run by The Centre for Volunteering which has grown to become one of the largest celebrations of volunteering across the country.

Regional finalists for the awards are announced at 25 ceremonies throughout NSW, culminating into a Gala State Ceremony later this year to announce the overall 2020 NSW Volunteer of the Year.

We wish Oscar the best of luck!

ChIPS aims to connect young people aged 12-25 years old, regardless of their condition, to share and receive validation about their illness experience, increase their confidence and self-esteem and decrease social isolation. Moreover, it’s about being an adolescent and having fun with new friends.

ChIPS is open for referrals all year round. Email schn-chips-sch@health.nsw.gov.au for more information.