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Making a difference; making soul friends

Diane Wright was awarded Life Membership of Palliative Care Victoria at its 2018 Annual General Meeting for her inspiring leadership and significant contributions to the development of palliative care in Victoria. Diane (right in the photo) received the award from PCV Chair, Barbara Hayes.

A few days before, Diane sat gazing at Lake Colac contemplating her work in palliative care and sharing her story with Kate Wellard,

Formative years

“There was always a spirit of commitment to the community in my family. My father and mother were key members in establishing the non-for-profit Royal Guide Dogs for Victoria. As a family we were always involved in working bees and fund-raisers.  Dad was also a member of The Melbourne Apex Club – so by example community service was part of my life, even as a young child,” Diane comments.

Every morning after breakfast, before rushing out the front door ready to embrace the new day ahead, her father would ask a 12 year old Diane the same question. A question that has stayed with her for decades.

Every morning he would look me in the eyes in an inquisitive fashion and in a playful but curious tone he would ask ‘what difference are you going to make in the world today Diane?’” He probably didn’t know it at the time, but it inspired, encouraged and spurred me on to make an impact and over time to drive meaningful change,” says Diane.

And even though this humble and incredibly modest woman wouldn’t say so herself, she has had an enormous impact on the quality of life of hundreds of Australians. Diane has also been a trail blazer in paving the way for innovation in regional palliative care.

“While completing a Bachelor of Arts (Sociology) I started my career working at Yarra Valley Grammar School where I was very impressed with an innovative Hearing Unit to assist hearing impaired children.  Some years later, having moved to Colac in Western Victoria and with a growing family, I was privileged to implement the Interchange Program (now Gateways Support Services), a not-for-profit organization that supports children with a disability, by providing social and recreational opportunities and much needed respite for their families. After matching over 100 children with suitable carers, I could see the tangible difference this was making. I then decided to study further, completing a Graduate Diploma of Social Science (Family Therapy),” says Diane.

Sources of inspiration

Diane went on to complete a Post Graduate Diploma in Adolescent Health & Welfare at Melbourne University and a Masters of Counselling & Human Services at La Trobe University. At La Trobe University she was mentored by Jean Rumbold, her supervisor, and also met Dr. Bruce Rumbold, who was incredibly passionate about a social model of palliative care.

Subsequently, working as a Palliative Care Counsellor in Geelong, Diane was inspired by the work of Dame Cicely Saunders in the UK and Dr Trevor Banks in Geelong and was encouraged in her vision of creating a respite and palliative care facility, which would provide a high standard of care within an ‘home like’ environment.

“As a palliative care counsellor, my role was to provide support for people who had been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness or to provide support to families, especially in their bereavement phase. Over my five years of working with many, many patients and their families, I noticed a common theme that I couldn’t forget and which troubled me. People with a terminal illness wanted to remain at home and their families wanted the same thing; however, they became burnt out and towards the end of a loved one’s life it became ever more challenging,” comments Diane.

My father also had another saying that has stayed with me during the years: ‘If you see something that needs to be done, don’t wait for someone else to do it.’ I saw this gap in service and felt strongly that something needed to be done about it,” remarks Diane.

And with this, Anam Cara House Geelong and Anam Cara House Colac, two Community Hospices in Western Victoria, were born – “with outstanding community support, plus the support of my husband and family and also my Christian faith,” adds Diane.

Anam Cara houses established in Geelong and Colac

Anam Cara House Geelong was established in 2007, followed by the opening of Anam Cara House Colac in 2011. Diane’s leadership, in firstly initiating a massive fundraising drive and then taking the dream forward to the fit out of St Mary’s Presbytery in Geelong and then the purchase and refurbishment of a property in Barongarook West, near Colac, has enabled the people of Geelong and South West Victoria to have access to an option for palliative and end of life care that is truly unique.

“I researched deeply and travelled widely, taking inspiration in palliative care trends from across the world in developing Anam Cara. In fact, I came across the phrase “Anam Cara” (used by Irish poet John O’Donohue) in 2002 while attending the Canadian Palliative Care Congress.  Anam Cara is the Gaelic phrase for ‘soul friend’ and thus resonates with the holistic care, including spiritual care, offered through the service at Anam Cara House both in Geelong and Colac,” says Diane.

The Geelong and Colac Hospices have expanded annually and continue to evolve since first opening, demonstrating a clear need for this type of care and also responding to community need.  Last financial year, Anam Cara Colac supported 61 guests and their families for 260 nights of the year, involving some 800 episodes of overnight and day hospice care.

Broader, ongoing impact

Diane’s impact on palliative care does not stop there.

I want to share our community model of hospice care and also support others who are making great strides in this space. So Anam Cara is proud to be associated with Warrnambool & District Hospice Care and to have connected with Lakes Entrance Hospice, the Hospice Care Association of North Western Tasmania and most recently with the newly initiated Mansfield Community Hospice, to name a few,” says Diane.

Diane’s Father, Ken Rechter, died in January this year. He would be incredibly proud of Diane’s achievements, especially establishing the Anam Cara hospices that are owned by the community and will continue to evolve to provide the care that the community needs.


Our thanks to Kate Wellard, our volunteer writer, for kindly interviewing Diane and sharing her story.

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