History of Shearwater Lodge

In 1995, Max Glenn, Community Services Director of the Coffs Harbour Rotary Club, asked Dr. Paul Moran to approach the CEO of Coffs Harbour Base Hospital to seek approval for emergency accommodation for relatives of critically ill patients. The proposal was initially rejected, but in early 2000, the new CEO contacted Dr. Moran to ascertain the Rotary Club’s interest in raising funds for patient and carer accommodation at the new Base Hospital. The incoming president, Rob Mutton, and his board considered it a worthy project.

Initial meetings and negotiations took place between the Rotary Club and hospital representatives to plan a 6-8 unit motel-style complex on hospital land. However, the hospital rejected the idea of moving Regional Cancer Care and Stramit House to the new site.

Frustrating negotiations with the hospital led to the involvement of local Member Andrew Fraser and Mayor Jenny Bonfield. As a result, the Coffs Harbour City Council arranged a 21-year lease of a block of land adjacent to the new hospital for the Rotary Club to erect the motel-style accommodation, including the relocation of Regional Cancer Care and Stramit House.

By August 2001, ‘Coffs City Hospital Lodge’ was established with seven directors, consisting of Rotary Club of Coffs Harbour members and Coffs City Council representatives. The Rotary Club approved the construction of the 6-8 unit motel project and commenced fundraising.

Coincidentally, the Mid North Coast of NSW had been identified as the most disadvantaged area in Australia regarding access to radiotherapy services. Despite Coffs Harbour being initially recommended for a Radiotherapy Unit, the decision was changed to prioritize Port Macquarie, much to the disappointment of Coffs Harbour citizens.

The citizens of Coffs Harbour took action, presenting a petition with over 27,000 signatures to the NSW Parliament, requesting the Radiotherapy Unit be sited in Coffs Harbour. The Coffs City Hospital Lodge committee members, also members of the Rotary Club, revised the project plans, increasing the number of units to 16 and including common rooms, lounges, kitchens, and laundry to accommodate patients recovering from radiotherapy who lived out of the area.

The Rotary Club of Coffs Harbour agreed to the proposed expansion, despite the daunting estimated cost of $1.2-1.3 million. Fundraising efforts intensified, led by Nev Hillenberg and Paul Moran, with support from various organizations such as the CWA, Quota, Woolgoolga Lions, and individual donors.

The Coffs City Hospital Lodge Committee evolved into the Patients and Carers Lodge Committee in April 2003, with a constitution prepared by Rotarian Allen Hogbin. Numerous service clubs, organizations, and private donors contributed significant funds to the project.

By July 2004, the Patients and Carers Lodge committee expanded to include six Rotarians and two invited Woolgoolga Lions members. Lions International sponsored four units, bringing their total contribution to approximately $200,000. The Cancer Council of NSW also donated $200,000, and the project received support from Coffs Harbour City Council, the Federal Department of Transport and Regional Solutions, and individual donors.

The ‘first sod was turned’ on November 26, 2004, and construction began the following day. The lodge was renamed Shearwater Lodge (SWL) in May 2005 and officially opened on August 12, 2005, during the Rotary Presidency of Mike Brown.

The AGM in December 2005 elected an unchanged executive and added representatives from the NSW Cancer Council and Coffs Harbour Base Hospital. The new CEO of the Base Hospital, Margaret Bennett, was supportive of SWL, facilitating booking and cleaning services for about nine years.

In March 2006, a Special Meeting was held to consider ‘Annexure A’ of the SWL constitution, enabling excess funds to be set aside for cancer research or cancer and medical-related care locally. The Mid North Coast Cancer Institute (MNCCI) opened on October 4, 2007.

Over the years, the SWL board saw changes in members, with Rotarians, Lions representatives, and community members joining and retiring. In 2015, the management of Stramit House and RC Care Lodge was transferred to SWL from Regional Cancer Care Lodge due to the aging of their volunteers.

In 2019, an agreement was signed to lease Stramit and RCCare to the Base Hospital for locum doctor accommodation after a $55,000 refurbishment. The SWL board experienced further member changes in 2022 and 2023.

Throughout its history, SWL has prioritized patient care and support. Community groups have provided morning teas and evening meals, offering significant therapeutic benefits to guests. The dedication and commitment of staff members, such as Alan Reko and Mike Brown, have been instrumental in the smooth running of SWL and the well-being of its guests.

Nev Hillenberg’s voluntary commitment of at least 20 hours per week for more than 20 years to the construction, supervision, and management of SWL has been truly outstanding. The Board facilitated a $150,000 grant to MNCCI to introduce the SABR management of prostate cancer in Coffs Harbour, enabling more patients to be treated locally.

In November 2023, three more Rotary Club of Coffs Harbour members were elected to the Board, bringing the total number of active Rotarians to eight.