Question: What does Brownlow medallist Jimmy Bartel have in common with typhoid fever, rheumatic fever, diphtheria, pneumonia and spinal and hip disease?
Nope? Then how about with the kids of World War II prisoners of war? Or recovering soldiers themselves? How about the 1919 influenza epidemic, diets of rabbit and bread and treacle, a military hospital or hundreds of kids in need of a helping handpass … and all of this at Queenscliff?
Yeah, odd connections but Bartel’s role as an ambassador with the resort town’s Cottage by the Sea kids’ camp puts him squarely into the history books for reasons other than just football.
The Cottage, after all, has been many things over its 125 years, not just a holiday camp.
Its chief purpose, of course, is giving kids growing up in tough circumstances a taste of something different from their daily grind; a getaway with new experiences, games, seaside cavorting, excursions, some TLC and VIP treatment, a change of scenery and a few new skills.
Hearing the raucous shouts of excited kids rolling across the Cottage grounds and out towards the Port Phillip Heads is daily testament to its success. Likewise, watching their faces light up as Cats superstar Bartel ventures into their midst, grabs a basketball, dodges expertly and throws a two-pointer before tossing the rebound ball to another player.
It’s obvious the Cottage’s impact on kids is profound. These are kids aged five to 18 from all over Australia who have been referred for a break at Queenscliff for any one of a multitude of reasons. Disadvantaged is the generic all-encompassing term used to cover problems from abuse and neglect to poverty and isolation and everything in between.
But one look at the young charges at Cottage by the Sea and it’s patently obvious that for all they have to grapple with, they’re still just kids. And with their problems to the side for a week or so they can get down to what kids like best – burning off energy and laughing.
“Someone explained it to me once that it’s a bit of time out from reality for them but also they can have a bit of fun,” says Bartel. “I join in and I’m having fun with them doing it. I think they’re just appreciative of people coming down and just spending some time with them. They find out you’re very normal.”
Softly spoken and bright-eyed with a ready smile, Bartel fits in with the Cottage kids like part of the furniture. He’s a natural. It’s not surprising, really, given the hundreds of kids’ programs and clinics at schools and clubs under his belt. It’s also clear he genuinely loves what he’s doing.
“It certainly doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “It’s a bit of fun. I come down maybe once a month, kick the footy around, but probably most of all I want to play basketball so I do as much of that as I can with them.”
Bartel has long been familiar with kids facing challenges. His mother, Dianne, was a teacher for 40 years and involved in welfare for many years too.
“I think I’ve always seen it,” he says. “And I’ve seen the benefits of working with kids through her, through footy clinics and different programs. You become really appreciative of what you’ve got and thankful that people take an interest.
“With Cottage by the Sea, kids can build a lot of self-confidence, they learn some new skills, and of course in that group environment they can make friends and build resilience. Also, they can have fun, get away and learn there’s a lot more than just the world they live in.”
So what does all this have to do with typhoid fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, PoWs’ kids or the flu epidemic and eating rabbits? Well, Cottage by the Sea has just notched up its 125th birthday and it’s fair to say it’s faced a few challenges along the way. And from time to time, a few other uses as well, including a military hospital, and a sanatorium during the 1919 flu epidemic and the infantile paralysis epidemic of the late 1930s. At the outset, though, it was used for kids convalescing from typhoid fever, rheumatic fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, spinal disease and hip disease.
Old sepia photographs lining walls throughout the double-storey Cottage show its late 19th century beginnings – it was set up by Elizabeth Calder and Annie Hitchcock’s Ministering Children’s League in 1890 – and a multitude of kids in wide-brimmed hats, suits and crinolines, lace and ribboned ponytails. The initial building was an elegant, rambling timber structure of verandahs and turrets sitting high above the sand dunes with panoramic views across the water.
These days, the Cottage caters for some 1500 kids a year. It employs 14 staff with 60 regular volunteers whose numbers rise to 100 or more for special events. Ambassadors include Bartel, Rod Laver, Glynn Harvey and Curtis Stone. Business leader Frank Costa, who has had a lengthy association with the Cottage, is patron – a role he took over from Olympian Cathy Freeman. There’s more than a few heavyweights behind the operation, as evidenced by a Melbourne fund-raiser dinner last month that raised $200,000.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Costa. “I love kids and I like to think kids with no opportunity are given an opportunity with Cottage by the Sea. There are so many kids who come here who’ve never seen the sea before. They come from little country places and they get a real experience.
“It lifts their sights to what they maybe could achieve. It helps their self-esteem and they can see what’s available to people who work hard. They can have a great life. The experience helps families and it lifts their morale for going forward.”
Costa proudly thumbs off a list of facilities and equipment the public has rallied to supply in recent years: boats, swimming and fishing gear, a new bus, an indoor activity centre. This year’s project is a new, interactive playground fit-out.
“It’s all funded by private donations and it’s survived recessions, depressions, wars. It’s a fantastic facility doing wonderful things. It’s very, very special.”
CEO Tony Featherston sees the special side first-hand every day, often hosting camp kids from long ago – people in their 70s, 80s, even 90s, returning with, say, a granddaughter to recap on their lives in a sentimental journey. Cottage by the Sea leaves an indelible mark.
“We host five to 18-year-olds, the core group is probably seven to 14,” he says. “They come from the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, from the Top End and around the east coast. The connection for us for those NT and Queensland kids is Cathy Freeman, who has her own foundation working with indigenous kids.
“We teach them different things – hospitality, barista, wood-fired pizzas, practical things – so as well as having fun they’re learning skills they take back to their community. We’ve just put together a cookbook made up of lots of the kids’ recipes, and Bartel’s got a recipe in there.”
That recipe is rissoles and mash, featuring mince, leek, sage, apple, breadcrumbs and seasoning, and reflects a lesser-known side of the footballer and new father. Bartel and his partner, Nadia, had a baby boy late last year – Aston James – who Bartel says has given him a new perspective on life and kids and an awed admiration for his partner.
“I was in there when he was born; it’s definitely an eye-opener. I got a little bit emotional,” he says. “He was just under nine pounds and born right on his due date. He’s two months now.
“He suffers a bit from the reflux, though. It’s like bad heartburn and, like other babies, after you feed them they get tired but after you put him down it just build and builds. They call it silent reflux, he doesn’t actually throw it up. You can feel it coming up and it just stays there.
“But I think he’s starting to come out the other side now. He’s growing up and he’s thriving.”
Which is pretty much what the kids at Cottage by the Sea are doing too, and will continue to do as long as the public keep up their support.