21st birthday marks a lifetime of memories

On this day 21 years ago, Bear Cottage officially swung open its doors. Beautifully furnished with brightly coloured walls and overlooking the ocean, Bear Cottage became the first children’s hospice in NSW. More than that though, it became the first home-away-from-home for families of children with life-limiting illness.

Since its humble beginning, Bear Cottage has cared for more than 1000 children and their families, providing support, respite and end-of-life care in an environment far removed from that found in a hospital.

Over the years, 700 of the children who have visited Bear Cottage have since passed away, with around 250 spending their last days, weeks or months at Bear Cottage, surrounded by the people they love most.

There is often a perception a children’s hospice is a sad and depressing place. This was an even more common feeling among the community in Bear Cottage’s early days, but the children’s hospice was always designed to be quite the opposite. The aim of Bear Cottage was to create a place “where life is for living” and that is a goal that has been well and truly achieved.

"Bear Cottage is not a place of darkness and despair, but one of light, love, laughter and most importantly life,” Narelle Martin, Nurse Manager at Bear Cottage said.

“It is a place where each child and family member are encouraged and supported to live life to the full and make precious memories that last a lifetime.”

Narelle has been at Bear Cottage since day one and still vividly recalls the early patients and families that came for care.

“The parents must have felt overwhelmed when they came through the doors as we couldn’t do enough for them,” she said.

Joshua’s family have a similar recollection of their first visit, describing Bear Cottage as their lifeline.

“Joshua was diagnosed with a progressive illness which put simply would eventually take his life. We didn’t have a timeframe and services in the community for children suffering from life-limiting illnesses were scarce.”

“We dealt with many things emotional and physical, as well as countless hospital admissions. Then late in 2001, I finally came across Bear Cottage. I was overwhelmed with tears of joy and sadness. I finally found the support I had been searching for,” Malinda, Joshua’s mum, said.

Initially, Malinda and husband, David, like any parents, found it difficult to handover care of their little boy but they quickly developed a sense of confidence and trust in their newfound family that gave them the opportunity to get the respite they needed.

Joshua would often enjoy a bubble bath and loved a splash in the spa pool during his stay, a little luxury most people take for granted, but also one that Joshua and his family otherwise wouldn’t have been able to enjoy. 

“Bear Cottage became our lifeline. We knew that Joshua was in good hands and all his needs were taken care of. The staff were amazing and provided us with support and most of all respected Joshua.”

“Having finally found this precious gem, Bear Cottage gave us the strength to recharge our batteries so we could continue to care for Joshua at home,” Malinda said.

Joshua fought his illness with courage and determination but sadly lost his battle three years later, just two days after Bear Cottage celebrated its 3rd birthday.

While Joshua may no longer be with us, his family continued to stay connected with Bear Cottage, with Mum Malinda joining the Family Advisory Group, helping to support other parents.

The ongoing connection with families after a child has passed is one of the things that makes Bear Cottage so unique.

“Many of our families remain connected to Bear Cottage for many years after their child has died. They are invited to attend annual events like our bereavement camps and Remembering Days and have ongoing access to our social workers and other key workers,” Narelle said.

“Once they are part of the Bear Cottage family, they remain so for as long as they wish.”

From looking after the medical needs of children with life-limiting illness, to providing therapeutic programs like Art, Music and Child Life Therapy (and of course, therapy dog Beau), to offering Family Support programs like sibling, parent and grandparent camps, Bear Cottage has helped create irreplaceable memories for families during an the most difficult time of their lives. The impact of this is priceless.

Happy 21st Birthday Bear Cottage.