Humanitarian Moira Kelly reflects on her love of south-west

Home away from home: Humanitarian Moira Kelly, Moira, Krishna, Fun4Kids Festival scarecrow Gayle Payne, Angel, Severine, Molly, Shadh and Trishna.  Picture: Christine Ansorge
Home away from home: Humanitarian Moira Kelly, Moira, Krishna, Fun4Kids Festival scarecrow Gayle Payne, Angel, Severine, Molly, Shadh and Trishna. Picture: Christine Ansorge

The Fun4Kids Festival may not have stood the test of time but one of its enduring legacies is the friendships it created along the way.

And that is true for Warrnambool’s Gayle Payne and humanitarian Moira Kelly, from the first time about 16 years ago when Gayle spotted Moira’s boys Ahmed and Emmanuel having fun at the festival.

“If it wasn’t for Fun4Kids we would have never have crossed paths I don’t think,” Gayle said, who is still listed in Moira’s phone contacts as Scarecrow. “I didn’t know her name for years,” Moira said with a laugh.

Gayle, who worked as a scarecrow at the festival for 18 years helping to return lost children to their families, brought the character back to life this week when Moira and the kids returned to the south-west.

Gayle also found a collection of check shirts and straw hats at the op shop to decorate for each of the kids and arranged for a face-painter to visit.

When Moira was first invited to bring her children to the Fun4Kids Festival, she said she didn’t even know where Warrnambool was. Now she calls the south-west her second home.

Moira, her best friend Louise and the kids loved the festival so much she came back the following year, and then every year after that. “We just started becoming part of the fixture,” she said.

The south-west rallied around her to make the trip possible. Over the years the Koroit Lions Club has fundraised to pay for accommodation and for years the Hearns have put them up in beachfront accommodation in Port Fairy.

Callaghans has supplied a van, and restaurants such as Images, McDonald’s and Maceys supply meals. Mickey Bourkes in Koroit holds a fundraiser and Our Lady Help of Christians church takes up a collection.

Despite there being no Fun4Kids Festival this year, Moira decided to still come to Warrnambool and the people of the south-west rallied again. “It’s just phenomenal the support we have in the area,” Moira said.

She admits she’s still shocked and devastated by the festival’s demise. “I don’t know Warrnambool without it,” she said. “It was actually my highlight of the year. People always go to Queensland. I’m always telling people in Melbourne all those theme parks have got nothing on the kids’ festival in western Victoria,” she said.

Family tradition: Ahmed Kelly in 2009 volunteering at the Fun4Kids Festival.

Family tradition: Ahmed Kelly in 2009 volunteering at the Fun4Kids Festival.

“Warrnambool had something special. It put Warrnambool on the map. I don’t get it.

“Maybe someone else will go in there with a bigger heart and make this work rather than throw it away because we all want to invest in children. Warrnambool was investing in children in a mighty way. Don’t give up on the notion that something might come back because they’re good at doing it.”

Moira is nostalgic about the festival that was such a big part of her life. “It’s something I did with all my family.”

Over the years Moira brought almost 100 kids to the festival from about 15 countries. “There’s lots of kids who’ve come down to this festival from Somalia, Iraq, the frontline of the Bosnia war, from the frontline of the Gaza war, there’s kids from PNG, Albania.” 

It also helped launch her son Emmanuel’s singing career, his performance during the idol competition moved people to tears. Now he is in LA being mentored by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and has just released a single called EDIS which already has over one million hits on Youtube.

His brother Ahmed, who has a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport, is in training after he made the team for the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns next month.

Ahmed and Emmanuel, who Moira adopted from Iraq, grew up at the festival and eventually became volunteers. “It’s sad.That week is such a fabulous week. The whole world revolves around Warrnambool and it just feels like something’s missing,” she said.

Gayle too admitted she was lost last week and felt a little flat. Facebook also made sure she didn’t forget almost two decades of festival fun. One of those memories was of a little boy from Melbourne who got lost at the festival when he was five. “Every year after that he would come up until he was 12 and have his photo with me,” she said. “I keep in touch with quite a few families.”

The festival may be over, but Gayle and Moira made sure there is still plenty of fun for kids in Warrnambool by keeping some of their family holiday traditions such as having singalongs, playing bingo and holding a concert night.

Gayle is a familiar face for the kids – she has been travelling to Melbourne to help out Moira for years, even running the household for a week while Moira crammed for one of her nursing exams.

When Gayle’s granddaughter Lexi was diagnosed with Leukaemia two years ago and was flown to Melbourne for her first lumbar puncture at the Royal Children’s Hospital, as well as family, Moira was also there for support. “It was just lovely to have someone who has been through so much to be there,” Gayle said.

Annual visit: Gayle Payne and Moira Kelly with some of the children and volunteers she brought to Warrnambool in 2015.

Annual visit: Gayle Payne and Moira Kelly with some of the children and volunteers she brought to Warrnambool in 2015.

Moira said: “It’s really weird for Gayle to have gone through that journey with her own grandchild knowing she had all our kids for so many years and suddenly she was in the midst of it on a different level. She sort of knew what our journey was like and it was very close. And now that she’s picking up it’s good to have her onboard again”. 

Lexi is now in remission and on November 4 she will ring the bell to signal her last chemo. 

The children Moira now brings to Australia are those with complex rare conditions. Angel, who has a severe case of vascular malformation called Cloves syndrome, has been with Moira for over two years and is only now about to have surgery. “She’s from Pakistan. She’s a little girl with the world’s biggest feet really. Her big toe fits in her hand,” Moira said. “The weight of those feet are like bricks. It’s such a cruel thing this little kid goes through.”

On the drive to Warrnambool Moira received a call to say surgery to remove the first of Angel’s legs is now scheduled to happen in a few weeks. “This is a nice break before all that happens,” she said.

Eight-year-old Shadh, who came to Moira from Gaza two years ago, has a rare condition called Harlequin ichthyosis – a condition from which many children don’t survive past infancy. “She makes two weeks of skin every night,” Moira said.

“She’s the first documented case in the world to have surgery, not that there’s many of them around anyway.”

Doctors are now writing a paper on her for a medical journal because of how fast she heals. After an eight-hour surgery on one hand and an eyelid, Shadh was supposed to stay in hospital for eight days. After a few hours sleep she woke and asked for food. “I’ll never forget this, no exaggeration. She had a kids’ roast dinner, an adult’s roast dinner, she had four plates of sandwiches about three juices and two milkshakes and half a dozen icecreams before she said ‘I’m good now’,” Moira said. “It was amazing. She needed fuel to repair herself.”

They ended up going home the day after the surgery and when three months later they operated on the other hand and eyelid, she went home after just a few hours. 

High note: Emmanuel Kelly performs on the main stage at the Fun4Kids Festival in 2012. Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

High note: Emmanuel Kelly performs on the main stage at the Fun4Kids Festival in 2012. Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

She said it was Trishna and Krishna, the conjoined Bangladeshi twins who were brought to Australia for life-saving surgery in 2009, who taught her a lot about hope and not giving up. “No one gave up on them. That was three years of surgery,” she said. “There’s just some kids in the world that we say no to because it looks too hard but Angel wouldn’t be here today and neither would Shadh if it wasn’t for Trishna and Krishna.”

Just before Christmas, Krishna started to walk, which they never thought she would. “It’s a miracle. I’m still getting used to it. I’m still shocked,” she said.  “A lot of people think it must be so sad, but it’s not. There’s a lot of joy and fun. They’re all lively kids. Little people are courageous. Wisdom doesn’t always come in suits. Kids have a lot to teach us.”

Helping kids is not Moira’s only calling. Recently she has started helping displaced mums and in the next 12 months hopes to get another house where they can live. If you help mums you help kids, Moira said.

“I love my kids and I’ll always do that. Kids are my life but the women feed my soul. Sometimes in life you’re looking for something extra,” she said.

The Moira Kelly Creating Hope Foundation, where everyone is a volunteer, supports both her work with the children and women. You can follow Moira’s journey on the website or Facebook page. “I feel very blessed and I think I’m one of the luckiest people in the world.”

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