Walking the walk for charity

Sitting by a pool sipping cocktails and soaking up the sun may sound like a dream holiday for many people, but Michelle Faithfull isn’t one of them.

Instead, the intrepid traveller prefers to combine adventure with altruism, spending her annual leave taking part in – and now leading others on – fundraising treks for charity. The spirited Bar Beach woman has traversed the world during the past nine years, conquering the physical and mental challenges of the Kokoda Track, trekking the ancient Inca Trail in Peru and leading a pilgrimage along the iconic El Camino de Santiago in Spain, among other destinations. Along the way, she has raised over $180,000 for local charities, including more than $90,000 for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service, almost $65,000 for the Hunter Breast Cancer Foundation and $20,000 for the new Ronald McDonald House Family Room at John Hunter Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

“I’m not one to sit by the pool in a resort, I just can’t ever see myself doing that,” Michelle said. “There’s so much that can be gained by having these experiences with other people. Going to other countries and having all of these really interesting personal and physical challenges, all those things bring people together because we’re all going for the same purpose, and then, of course, the charities are benefiting as well. “I think it just clearly entrenches those memories and those experiences you have because it means a lot more when you’re doing it for something, for a cause.

“That’s how I like to spend my holidays, and I think it’s a much more well-rounded experience.” Michelle says she became “hooked” on the charitable expeditions in 2011 after participating in an Inspired Adventures fundraising trek along the Great Wall of China for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.

But her real motivation for supporting community organisations originated much further back in her past, in far more tragic circumstances. Michelle’s firstborn child Jessica died in 1987 at just four months of age. Having spent months sitting by her daughter’s side in an intensive care nursery, the heartbroken mother knew that she would one day do something to give back to the medical community and the charities that assist with research and support.

“When we lost Jessica, I always thought I wanted to give back to the community, give back to the people who had supported us during that time,” Michelle said. “But it wasn’t until I moved to Newcastle 16 years ago that I was able to start to volunteer with all sorts of children’s charities, other charities, anything I could get my hands on, just to get out in the community and do something.”

Deciding to join the Great Wall trip saw her support move into the fundraising space, and also led to the establishment of an annual ladies charity golf day, which Michelle used in that first year to help raise the funds needed to take part in the trek. The event, which is now known as Divas on the Green, was originally meant to be a one-off.

But positive feedback and requests for her to hold it again saw Michelle take up the challenge the following year, while also bringing Hunter Breast Cancer Foundation on board as its second charity partner. Described as “a unique networking event for women, which happens to involve a bit of golf, a fair amount of champagne and a whole lot of fun,” Divas on the Green is now in its 10th year, a hugely popular addition to Newcastle’s social calendar. Michelle said she is blown away by the community’s support for the various charity events and initiatives she has held or supported over the years.

“It’s been a long process, and actually with the event itself, it’s taken time to build that rapport with the community, develop the trust and get to a point where you’re known for running events that people enjoy,” she said.

All you need to do is ask

“But I’m still amazed by the generosity of the community whenever I put something out there or ask for support or help. “People innately want to help and that’s what I found over the years. It’s how you communicate it and how you ask it and if you’re transparent enough so other people know what you’re doing, people want to help, they want to contribute.

“More often than not they’ve had some sort of relevant experience or alignment to what you’re doing or supporting, but I also think we underestimate people in terms of them wanting to help each other to the nth degree. It’s amazing.” Having never been inspired in her fundraising by a need for recognition, Michelle was stunned when she was named the 2020 Newcastle Citizen of the Year for her fundraising efforts.

“I’m just one person, there’s so many other people out there doing much more worthwhile things than I am … I was very humbled to be nominated, overwhelmed and humbled,” she said.

“Bringing people together for a common cause has undoubtedly become a passion of mine, and apart from honouring my daughter’s legacy, it has taken me on an incredible journey of connection. “When I’m bringing people together, it makes me feel like it is my purpose, and it gives me a great sense of achievement. It’s something that keeps me connected with the community and that’s what I really get a lot from. I just love it.”

Story by Michelle Meehan, photos courtesy of Michelle Faithfull

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