A volunteer’s reflection on 14 years with Very Special Kids

The Very Special Kids team is sad to say goodbye to one of our superstar and highly skilled family service volunteers, Sue Clifford, who has volunteered with Very Special Kids for over 14 years.  

Sue is taking the plunge and moving to Western Australia via Queensland. Before she left, she sat down with us to share some of her favourite memories volunteering in the children’s hospice and working as a family service volunteer in Ballarat over the past two decades.   

SueClifford_Mother“In 2006, I did exactly what I’m doing now. I put my belongings into my car in Tasmania, jumped on the boat and moved to Victoria. Everything felt new, and I didn’t know too many people, so when I heard about Very Special Kids, I was excited to get involved,” says Sue.  

Sue has always found herself gravitating towards supporting children and adults with disabilities, “My aunt had a disability, and I used to spend a lot of time in her self-help workshop growing up, as well as attending functions with my grandmother.

When my children started primary school in Tasmania, I was recruited as a teacher aide, and supported a couple of children with fairly significant needs.  

“I remember one of the teachers at the school asking me, what do you get out of this? Why do you enjoy doing this? And I said, if I can just get one smile, or a little laugh, once in my shift, I know that I’ve done a good job. 

“The same thing goes at the Very Special Kids hospice. For some children, it can be really hard to get that little prompt and little response, but whether it be a squeeze of my hand or a little smile, that feedback from the child is priceless to me.” 

The volunteer program 

Very Special Kids has more than 750 dedicated volunteers who generously give their time to support families of children and young people with life-limiting conditions. Our regular training programs are developed to help volunteers to navigate difficult conversations, so they can better converse with families going through the most difficult times.  

“The training was extremely considered and a real eye-opening experience for me. I had been working in that industry for a little bit, but I still learnt a lot from the program,” says Sue. 

Every Family Services Volunteer completes a 27-hour training program to equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to support families who have a child or young person with a life-limiting condition. Sue explains, “As a volunteer, you’ve got to be prepared to navigate all those different pathways and be thinking on your feet the whole time because each child that comes in will be different. 

“I remember getting called in to look after a little girl in the hospice, while her parents had a meeting with the hospice team to discuss how they were going to do their end-of-life stage. Their daughter had a brain tumour, and was non-verbal, I remember thinking how daunting it must be for this child, to be with a stranger she had never met before. I took some magazines with me and I sat down beside her and introduced myself. I was told she had constant headaches, so asked if I could read her some stories from the magazine, or if she would prefer to just look at the pictures together. I asked her to squeeze my hand for the one she would prefer, and she squeezed tightly when I mentioned the pictures. So we enjoyed flicking through the magazine to look at the pictures.”  

Moving to regional Victoria 

Four years ago, Sue decided to move to Ballarat, she was disappointed that she would no longer be able to work at the children’s hospice in Malvern but was excited to learn that the Very Special Kids family support program was going to be opening in the Ballarat region. Pauline, our Ballarat Family Support Practitioner, introduced Sue to one of her families who required extra support.  

 “I jumped into it straight away, and it’s been such a lovely experience. The family has been really welcoming and I am going to miss them terribly. They just have such a big heart, and are always putting others first, despite how much stuff is going on in their own life,” says Sue.   

Sue shared that sometimes conversation with her family would lead to questions of what life will be like after their child dies. “It is extremely difficult when this inevitable outcome is looming ahead of you, and a lot of parents just want to talk about this in a safe space with others who can empathise. In addition, families want to make the most of every precious moment they can share with you and their child.” 

Supporting families as a volunteer can provide the extra support and respite a family needs to get through their day-to-day tasks, Sue shares how Very Special Kids helps. “Parents are often so busy caring for their children, they often don’t have time to do little things most people take for granted. Like taking their kids to the movies or an AFL game. Very Special Kids can allow that stuff to happen. The staff are always creating new opportunities for children that might not necessarily have had that opportunity to do otherwise.” 

Saying goodbye 

Reflecting on the past 14 years volunteering with Very Special Kids, Sue explained how much of an impact the staff has had on her experience over the years. 

“The staff at Very Special Kids and Sister Margaret Noone are really special. They really care about the work they are doing and are very passionate about supporting families through all stages of their journey.  It’s just an amazing organisation, and it gives you so much more than what you give back.”