20 years ago, Tim Conolan founded TLC for Kids with the aim of filling the gaps in healthcare support services. Tim’s community work had brought him to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where he met Ana Darras and learned about the vast amount of children who were missing out in their hour of need.
Before TLC for Kids, many children were unable to receive support due to their illness type, age, waiting lists, or prior assistance. This was affecting sufferers of rare disorders, mental health problems, accidents, burns, and chronic illness.
It was even affecting sufferers of illnesses and disabilities that seemed to have ample support, but whose ‘need’ didn’t fit the types of support on offer.
The solution was simple: create a charity that helps all sick kids and their families cope with the challenges of life with illness – without exceptions.
The 20 Year Formula
The Short Story
The Long Story
THE TLC FOR KIDS JOURNEY
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
17-year-old Francis Stockbridge was suffering from lung cancer. Just 21 years old himself, TLC for Kids Founder and CEO Tim Conolan – then a young entrepreneur – and his older brother, David, were invited to attend a cancer support program as motivational speakers. It was here that they met Francis, striking up a connection that was to change the course of Tim’s life.
A few days later, Francis called the brothers for support after being told he had just one month left to live. Relying on life skills, the brothers were able to use motivational techniques to help Francis focus not on the far-off future, but on the goodness of each day. Through meditation, Tim was also able to help Francis take the deep breaths he longed for, as the cancer in his lungs forced him to fight for breath. “This was my ‘a-ha’ moment”, says Conolan…
…It was the realisation that sick children don’t need sympathy, they need practical help and motivation to see what’s good about life.
TEAM LIFE: THE FORERUNNER
Keen to make a difference, Tim and his brother set up ‘Team Life’, an organisation that aimed to make the wishes of terminally ill kids a reality. Tim explains that Team Life was a forerunner to TLC for Kids:
We wanted to make a difference for these kids by giving them something to focus on, something that would motivate them outside the confines of their hospital bed.
The brothers raised funds by carrying out street stunts, organising concerts, and even selling charity chocolates. Every cent they made was poured into distracting kids from their daily hospital environment, taking them bowling, to the zoo and even on joy flights. However, despite some successful fundraising, there was never enough money to help all the kids who were in need, and people were hesitant to donate to Team Life as it was an unknown entity and unregistered as a charity. Conolan says; “It was frustrating because people assumed we had an ulterior motive. They were always asking ‘what’s in it for you?”
A POWERFUL PARTNERSHIP
Meeting his life partner Ana Darras allowed Tim to take his concept of helping sick kids to the next level. Through Team Life, Conolan had become a regular visitor to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where Ana was working in Public Affairs. On a guided tour of the Hospital, Ana showed Tim the vast number of children admitted to the hospital that were ‘falling through the gaps’ and were missing out on emotional support. Tim was struck by the enormity of illnesses and health-related issues faced by children; “Regardless of the situation relating to a health complication, be it a serious or chronic illness, car accident or terminal disease, most kids need some sort of distraction or support to help them get through what is often the toughest time of their life.” Tim felt there was a need for a support group to focus on helping the child regardless of their illness.
THE BIRTH OF TLC FOR KIDS
On the 15th of June 1998, TLC for Kids was born; and, on 28th of December 1998, TLC for Kids was officially registered as a charity (or benevolent society / non-profit organisation), complete with a board of directors, constitution and DGR (deductible gift recipient) status.
After talking to social workers and medical staff at various hospitals, it became clear that granting children’s wishes was rewarding, but financial support, food vouchers and basic necessities were the real requirements of families enduring costly yet necessary procedures. Even today, TLC for Kids only accepts requests for help from medical professionals and social workers, ensuring its funds are directed to those truly in need. According to Darras,
Our motto is that to observe is to disturb, so we rely on health professionals to pinpoint children and families that need our help and identify their needs.
Between 1998 and 2000 TLC for Kids took off, and started receiving charitable donations, including a substantial $30,000 donation from Tattersall’s, but most of the funds were still coming from Conolan’s nightly DJ income and it wasn’t enough. By 2000, Darras had also left her job at the Hospital to concentrate on TLC for Kids. “We call it the mincemeat and rice period of our lives”, jokes Darras, pouring every dollar back into the charity and paying for things for the kids personally to save TLC funding.
TLC for Kids kept going, but in 2002 things were looking bleak. Funding was proving hard to come by because corporate dollars were being ploughed into long-established charities with big advertising budgets, but Conolan and Darras had hope in a small $10,000 budget, which they had set aside for a fundraising campaign. However, the ethos of TLC for Kids has always been to ‘never say no to a family in need’, so when a request came in to cover the cost of a holiday for a family with a terminally ill seven-year-old, the choice was clear-cut. TLC for Kids gave its precious fundraising budget to the family, leaving Conolan and Darras with just $93 in the bank.
Never say no to a family in need.
At the same time, Conolan was offered a full-time DJ gig, and Darras was approached to take up her old position with the Royal Children’s Hospital. They had the option to turn their back on the TLC for Kids dream and pursue a comfortable life with a secure income. But neither could let go of their desire to make a real difference to sick kids and their families.
As fate would have it, Tim had met 3AW’s Neil Mitchell during a hospital visit in 1999. At the time Mitchell was supportive of TLC for Kids’ work and told Tim to contact him if he ever needed any help. With nowhere to turn to, Tim thought it was worth a shot, and contacted Mitchell at 3AW. Without hesitation Mitchell and his producer, Justin Smith organised an on-air appeal, dedicating an entire show to raising money for the charity. Families, board members and celebrities pulled together to take donation calls from the 3AW boardroom, and by the end of the three and a half hour show, they had raised a grand total of $150,000.
With TLC for Kids back on their feet, it was time to set about helping the kids again and in 2003, after a suggestion from one of their board members working in educational play therapy, Tim and Ana started working on an exciting and innovative concept – Distraction Boxes. The boxes are filled with specific toys used as distraction aids, designed to distract children from the medical procedures they are undergoing and make invasive hospital procedures less stressful for children and their families.
Back then, the Distraction Boxes were $350 a pop. To make up the boxes was not cheap and several attempts at corporate sponsorship had failed, leaving TLC for Kids with a fantastic idea, but no funds to implement. Once again Neil Mitchell came to the rescue, raising a further $86,000 through an on-air Distraction Box appeal. Clipsal and Toll-IPEC also came on board as a sponsor, and in 2004, 260 boxes were distributed across Victoria. Over a decade later, there are 1,866 Distraction Boxes being used nation-wide…which equates to a whopping 874,759 uses per year.