"I never ever wanted or thought this would be me — some days it’s just so overwhelming."
Her eyes moisten and roll towards heaven as she struggles to hold back the tears.
It has been an extraordinary transformation for Vicki Jellie.
In just 20 weeks her world was turned upside down when cancer stole her much-loved husband and threw her into a battle of another kind.
A sore back and a perceptive doctor is all it took.
Ms Jellie’s husband Peter was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in April 2008. Just two weeks after they had signed the papers on their new, family dream home.
By September of the same year Ms Jellie could only stand by and watch as the cancer “literally strangled him to death”.
And now the tears that had threatened begin to fall freely.
“How do you say goodbye,” she asks. “There was no time.”
There may not have been enough time to talk about it but Peter had been doing a lot of planning during his treatments.
Just days after his death Ms Jellie stumbled on pages and pages of notes Peter had written on building a cancer centre in the south-west.
“He had planned his own 50th birthday bash,” Ms Jellie remembers with a surprised tone.
“It was to take place in March at his mate Colin McKenna’s property.
“It was to be a fund-raiser in which friends bought a ticket for $75 for a sausage sizzle and auction.
“He had even organised live music and entertainment.”
Finally a smile appears on Ms Jellie’s face as she recalls: “He had even planned for Sammy Newman from The Footy Show to host the party and if he couldn’t get him it was going to be Rex Hunt.”
For most of us this would be where it would end. We’d pack those notes in a memory box for sentimental times — but not Ms Jellie.
This is where it all began.
Those simple handwritten notes became the first chapter of a story in which a rather “unremarkable woman”, in her own words, “won’t stop until we’re cutting a ribbon on a cancer centre”.
When pressed, she admits her school reports would say nothing more than shy, quiet and unassuming.
Her life reads much the same as any other country girl. She finished country schooling, moved to Melbourne for a while, went overseas for a time, met a boy at the local pub back home, married and had kids. But here is where the similarities end.
What began with a funeral has escalated into what member for South West Coast Denis Napthine has described as a community group that has gained unprecedented momentum.
Requesting donations rather than flowers for Peter’s funeral saw Ms Jellie and her family showered with more than $3500 towards a cancer centre. The fund-raising had begun.
It was Shane Timms, Peter’s palliative care nurse, who came up with the name Peter’s Project.
“It’s not just for my Peter but for all the Peters in the south-west,” Ms Jellie clarifies.
The further you live from a radiotherapy centre, you are 30 per cent more likely to die.
One third of those diagnosed in the south-west of Victoria will choose not to have treatment because they are too far away or they feel they are too old.
Ms Jellie can roll these statistics straight off the tongue now.
Telling her story has become her life.
She admits she is uncomfortably anxious before she speaks in public. She “physically shakes”, but this she fondly terms as “the fire in the belly”.
“I feel the need to get up and say something.”
Ms Jellie has now told her story to CEOs of medical centres, politicians and prominent decision makers, theatre groups and friends but she fondly recalls her first meeting.
“It was a labour feasibility study.
“Gathered around the table were 20 people, all of them professionals in their fields.
“There were doctors, medical experts, CEOs and me.
“We had to go around the table and state our name and where we were from.
“It started at the other end (of the table) ... when it came to my turn I stood up and said ‘my name is Vicki Jellie and it’s my fault we’re all here’.”
It’s hard not to like Vicki Jellie.
She’s warm, genuine, caring and unassuming.
Her passion for Peter’s Project is infectious and her energy is contagious.
She doesn’t like the spotlight and it still astounds her that her role is a public one.
But it’s easy to see why people want to listen to her: because she’s “one of us”.
She has survived an incredible loss and now she is determined to ease some of that pain her family went through for others.
It’s her determination that defines her.
Mr Timms immediately refers to how “driven” she is.
“Her determination is beyond description if you ask me,” he says.
“She has taken on the big blokes and I don’t know if she’ll ever give up to be honest.”
Her only downfall appears to be that she can’t understand when others cannot feel the need for the project like she does. Mr Timms agrees it is her heart that drives her.
Vicki marry again today.
She and fiance Alan met at a Palliative Care Bereaved Partners Group in Warrnambool.
Alan too was widowed when he lost his wife to cancer.
Both agree they’ll never replace their lost partners. It’s their memory that spurs them on.
Ms Jellie continues to live by one mantra penned by Paul J. Meyer: “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe and enthusiastically act upon must inevitably come to pass.”