The Beauty of Giv­ing Back: The Kiwi help­ing ter­mi­nal pa­tients ful­fil their dreams

Viv James be­lieves that life doesn’t end just be­cause you’re in pal­lia­tive care. So she set up Race4Life Trust to make sure those near­ing the end make a few mem­o­ries first

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Ev­ery so of­ten, you meet peo­ple who com­pletely re­store your faith in hu­man­ity and leave you inspired to live with more kind­ness and gen­eros­ity. Viv James is one of those peo­ple. She is the founder of Race4Life Trust, the only char­ity in the coun­try that aims to ful­fil the wishes of pa­tients over 18 who are in pal­lia­tive care. Over the years, Viv’s work with Race4Life has been fea­tured on TV shows such as Close Up and Camp­bell Live, as well as re­ceiv­ing achieve­ment awards at New Zealan­der of the Year, but talk­ing to Viv, she makes it clear none of it is about her.

From a young age, she was in­trigued by death and yearned to un­der­stand it, es­pe­cially af­ter the sud­den death of her best friend when Viv was only 18. Af­ter mar­ry­ing and hav­ing three chil­dren, she worked as a teacher at a pri­mary school neigh­bour­ing a hos­pice. With­out giv­ing her busy sched­ule much thought, she fol­lowed her in­stinc­tive de­sire to con­nect with peo­ple who were close to death and be­gan vol­un­teer­ing part-time.

The more she got in­volved, the more she loved it, and her teach­ing job soon took a back­seat when a po­si­tion opened up at Mercy Hos­pice. Viv first ran the Open­ing Doors pro­gramme, where pal­lia­tive care pa­tients were in­vited to a day of art, mu­sic, pam­per­ing and fun.

“We cre­ated this vi­brant com­mu­nity of peo­ple who were dy­ing, and ev­ery week they just couldn’t wait to get there,” she says.

FROM SMALL BE­GIN­NINGS

In 2008, Viv’s hus­band came up with the idea of tak­ing 15 pa­tients with ter­mi­nal ill­ness out to Pukekohe for a spin around the track, with 17 race­cars and a catered lunch. Spurred on by the abun­dance of pos­i­tive feed­back, the out­ing be­came an an­nual event and Race4Life Track Day was born.

And there’s no short­age of peo­ple who want to join in and as­sist Viv on the day in any way pos­si­ble.

“Ev­ery­one seems to be able to iden­tify with a cer­tain side of us, be­cause no one gets out of this life alive,” Viv says. “Each year, more and more peo­ple have come on board. We now have 300 vol­un­teers, $30,000 that comes in just from do­na­tions, busi­nesses that come and do the ser­vices like the drinks and ca­ter­ing, we’ve got schools that do the do­mes­tic help and we’ve got an all-day bar­be­cue that’s pro­vided – there’s no cost. It’s bril­liant.”

Viv re­signed from her role at Mercy Hos­pice in 2014, but took the in­au­gu­ral Race4Life event with her and it con­tin­ued to grow each year. In 2015, the Race4Life Trust was formed. Their mis­sion? To en­able peo­ple liv­ing with life-lim­it­ing ill­ness to re­alise their dreams and cre­ate mem­o­ries that they and their fam­i­lies can cher­ish.

Be­ing a vol­un­teer-based char­ity, ev­ery grant, do­na­tion and spon­sor­ship goes straight to the wish ser­vice. From fam­ily hol­i­days, high tea and hon­ey­moons, to hot-air bal­loon trips and cham­pagne break­fasts, the trust has helped bring so many dreams to life. Just shar­ing some of the wishes and sto­ries, Viv is bub­bling with ex­cite­ment and grin­ning from ear to ear.

The gen­eros­ity of com­mu­ni­ties and busi­nesses na­tion­wide has been over­whelm­ing, and she is hum­bled and in­cred­i­bly grate­ful to be in her line of work.

“Be­cause of the work we do, we are ex­posed to the very best of hu­man­ity, the ab­so­lute best,” she says, laugh­ing about how ho­tels and restau­rants have been so keen to get in­volved with wishes that there

‘This is an hon­our to see hu­man­ity work­ing

like this and to see the joy that’s cre­ated’

have even been dis­putes about who will host the party and who will make the cake.

THE DRIVE TO GIVE

They’ve also had stars like Josh Kron­feld, Rachel Hunter and Greg Mur­phy play a part in sev­eral wishes.

“As soon as the hu­man spirit feels like it’s do­ing some­thing for oth­ers, it’s ben­e­fi­cial and it’s re­ally in­fec­tious,” Viv says. “The an­cient adage that in giv­ing you re­ceive is alive and thriv­ing.”

Viv sees her work as a priv­i­lege. “I try to talk to my staff about that too,” she ex­plains. “That this is an hon­our to see hu­man­ity work­ing like this and to see the beauty and the joy that’s cre­ated.”

One wish ful­filled by Race4Life was that of a quiet man who longed for a ride in a Lam­borgh­ini. Viv made some quick phone calls and had it ar­ranged, but when the car ar­rived out­side the hospi­tal, he was sud­denly un­sure if he could go through with it. Viv and the nurses egged him on and sug­gested just tak­ing some pho­tos by the car to be­gin with. Not long af­ter, the man was belted up in the pas­sen­ger’s seat and taken out for a 45-minute spin. For a man of few words, Viv said he couldn’t stop talk­ing upon his re­turn. Two days later, he passed away.

Viv un­der­stands that fam­ily and friends can feel over-pro­tec­tive of their loved ones who don’t have long to live, es­pe­cially when it comes to ac­tiv­i­ties like race­car rides and bungee jump­ing, but at a time when life is par­tic­u­larly frag­ile, she be­lieves joy should be al­ways para­mount.

The orig­i­nal Race4Life Track Day event has al­ready cel­e­brated its 10th an­niver­sary, and re­flect­ing on the jour­ney thus far, Viv can see how much her own out­look has changed.

“My be­lief now is that we’re sur­rounded by love. The uni­verse is very pow­er­ful, there are signs ev­ery­where and we should open our­selves up to that.”

From some­thing that started as just an idea in her bed­room, it’s amaz­ing what she has achieved, and her fingers are crossed that the pas­sion of her team and the work that they’re do­ing con­tin­ues to im­pact the lives of many Ki­wis and com­mu­ni­ties through­out New Zealand.

‘WE’RE SUR­ROUNDED BY LOVE.THERE ARE SIGNS EV­ERY­WHERE AND WE SHOULD OPEN OUR­SELVES UP TO THAT’

Left: The Race4Life vol­un­teer team worked to raise funds and aware­ness dur­ing the Targa South Is­land Rally in Oc­to­ber 2018 – and also got to cel­e­brate with the win­ners. Viv (below left); and farewelling rally duo Martin Dip­pie and Jona Grant at the start line in Dunedin (below).

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