True Colours

Words Denise Irvine, Images Vicki Ravlich Horan.

A humble Hamilton bungalow is home to a service that has children at its heart. The sign on the wooden fence is the giveaway, it says True Colours, and families who walk through the front door feel the love from this unique Waikato organisation.

True Colours Children’s Health Trust was founded in 2004 by Cynthia Ward, who is chief executive and nurse specialist. Cynthia had earlier worked with Hospice Waikato in children’s palliative care, and she saw the need for a broader, holistic service for families who have a child with a serious health condition, or who are grieving after the death of their baby or child.

She started True Colours from scratch, with a mantra of “keep the family standing”. Cynthia says while the key criteria are around sick children, others in the family always feel the impact. “There is ongoing work in keeping relationships intact.”

Clients include families who may be providing hospital level care at home for a child, and subsequently need support after a death. “People underestimate the intensity of this level of care,” says Cynthia, “even the technology involved, dealing with feeding pumps and respiratory ventilators. And then if a child dies there is enormous grief as they find their own resilience and resources, and how scary it can be for people going through something like this.”

True Colours also works with mothers and families after a still-birth, or a miscarriage late in pregnancy, or when a premature baby requires a long period in intensive care, or when there are decisions to be made around a possible medical termination of a pregnancy.

Says Cynthia: “A lot of what we do is supporting parents not to feel alone, to walk alongside them, and to bring in other organisations and health professionals as needed.”

There is also the largely unseen – but hugely essential – business of keeping True Colours itself standing, keeping the bungalow’s front door open, and funding its nine staff members who include a psychotherapist, social workers, nurse specialists, counsellors and administrator.

Nourish is visiting today to find out how it all works: True Colours has an annual operating budget of nearly $700,000, its services are free of charge, there is no government funding and, crucially for families, there is no waiting list.

Marketing and administration co-ordinator Heidi Gleeson says the True Colours gold standard is for people to be seen immediately upon referral from various health providers, or by self-referral. She says there are 240 families on their books at present and each family can often involve staff working with up to four people.

Heidi became involved with True Colours when a close friend’s daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2007 and died the following year. She saw the service in action; she was hugely impressed, and became the voluntary fundraising co-ordinator before joining the staff last year.

Cynthia says they’ve got to where they are today because of a generous community. In the beginning, True Colours had three staff, including her; they worked out of a boardroom lent by an electrical business, then a rent-free city office for three months. It was heart-in-mouth stuff until Waikato-based fashion designer Annah Stretton joined the trust board, and in 2005 bought the bungalow to provide an anchor for True Colours, with staff offices and therapy space.

Other support has flowed from business sponsors, trusts and fundraising efforts such as the annual – and massively successful–- True Colours Long Lunch on Melbourne Cup day. “It is purely because of the goodness of the community that we are eighteen years old,” says Cynthia.

One of True Colours’ sponsors, Daniel Klinkenberg, managing director of award-winning local building company Urban Homes, turns this around and says it’s an honour for him to be involved with an organisation that does such amazing things.

Urban has been a supporter for the past five years, and for every building contract it signs there is a donation to True Colours. Urban currently has more than 100 houses under construction across the Waikato, Coromandel and South Auckland, and True Colours has benefited from each of these.

Daniel Klinkenberg and wife Bronwyn started their design-and-build company in Hamilton in 2004, the same year as True Colours began. Daniel says their involvement grew out of him and Bronwyn wanting to give back to their region by supporting a local charity.

He says True Colours came to their attention, they walked through the front door, met Cynthia and the team, and knew they’d found the organisation they wanted to work with.

“It is a long-term relationship. We see the good work, we only get a glimpse of what they are doing but we know they are making a massive difference in the lives of their families.

“We liked their strong values and we could see the positive impact they were having. Their values resonated with us. We are passionate about the people we work with too.”

As well as a financial contribution from building contracts, Urban offers other support. At a recent team-building exercise, around 60 Urban staff members, working in 14 teams, had to build bikes, and 14 bikes were then gifted to some of the children True Colours works with. Daniel says the staff members at the bikes handover saw the joy on the children’s faces. Similarly, some time ago, Urban staff built a playhouse in their spare moments that was gifted to a True Colours family.

Cynthia says Daniel and Bronwyn have captured the vision of True Colours. “They are an extension of our wider team. We feel like they’ve got our back.”

While she no longer worries day-to-day about funding as much as she did in the beginning, she says the service never takes its community support for granted. “Thank you doesn’t even cover it.”





Share This Post