Wagga Wagga’s Corey Toole recalls losing his hair to chemotherapy and vaguely remembers thinking it was funny.
The Australian rugby union and rugby sevens player was only five when he was diagnosed with leukemia.
He had always been a happy and energetic young lad who was keen on sports, but frequent nose bleeds led his parents to investigate.
A few months later, he was travelling to Sydney for treatment.
Like many families living out bush, it was a hard slog for the Tooles, involving a lot of travel, expense and worry.
But they found relief in Riverina-based charity Country Hope.
Country Hope provides emotional and financial support to country families with a child diagnosed with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.
In Corey’s case, this came in the form of camps.
“It was full on for Mum and Dad, with me needing my treatment. This gave them a break from everything that was going on,” he says.
“I got to go on a camp for a week, which felt like a holiday for me. It took my mind off treatment and doctors and hospitals.”
On camps, Corey was assigned a Country Hope “buddy”.
Any 18-year-old with a valid Working With Children Check can sign up and train to be a Country Hope buddy, whose sole job is ensuring the kids have a great time on camps.
For Corey, the camps provided ample distraction, allowing him to experience normalcy during a difficult period.
“I wasn’t much into the arts and crafts; all I wanted to do was play sports. Tennis, cricket, any sport available really,” he laughs.
“The camps provided plenty of that.”
At age 10, Corey went into remission and went on to a promising rugby career.
He played for the Wagga Waratahs Rugby Club and the Gungahlin Eagles before joining the Brumbies Academy.
Corey signed with the Brumbies in 2023 and has made a stunning debut at Super Rugby level. He hopes one day to don the green and gold for the Wallabies.
“How you start in life doesn’t always decide your future,” he says.
“You might be at a disadvantage at first, but if you have support as I did through my family and Country Hope, you can go on to do anything you want.”
Country Hope general manager Ellie Webb said it wasn’t unusual for kids who go through adversity to grow up with a “strong will for reaching goals and making the most out of life”.
“Going through something challenging and coming out on the other side with global aspirations is a common theme with unwell children,” she says.
“I’ve been with Country Hope for 14 years and luckily, seen many kids come out the other side stronger than ever.”
Ellie says many country families with diagnosed children only come to Country Hope after they have blown through their savings.
“When a child is seriously ill, the families often run two households,” she says.
“One parent gives up their job to take their diagnosed child to appointments and spends enormous amounts of time far from home. They use up all their leave and their savings while the other stays back to keep the home fires burning,” she explains.
“We want to get to those families before that point.”
Country Hope started off exclusively in offering camps to seriously ill children like the ones Corey attended, but soon expanded into providing financial support for their families.
They have discretionarily covered a range of expenses for these families, from mortgage and rent payments and accommodation to vehicle roadworthy checks and fuel, food and tutoring to help children catch up on missed school.
The organisation doesn’t receive government funding, relying on fundraising, donations and the odd bequest.
A rise in the cost of living has impacted their funding. Combined with an increase in demand for their services, it’s a hard slog right now. But they’re proud of their model, which ensures the generosity of the communities they serve stays in those communities.
“Country kids who are seriously ill are hugely disadvantaged. They don’t get treatment locally and probably never will,” Ellie says.
“But country kids don’t deserve less care because of their geography. We’re doing our part to make sure of that.”
To donate, enquire about their services or sign up as a buddy, visit Country Hope.