Jill Hutchison doesn't like a fuss. Whether it's celebrating her recent 70th birthday or being recognised as one of the longest-serving volunteers at Ronald McDonald House Charities New Zealand, this humble grandmother isn't one to pat herself on the back.
When the Weekly contacts her for an interview, she reluctantly agrees – if only to highlight the difference the charity can make in creating a 'home away from home' for families who have a child in hospital.
"I call it my second home now too!" chuckles Jill, who for the past 20 years has selflessly donated her time each week at the organisation's Auckland houses. She has done everything from cleaning ovens and making lunches to teaching card making at its onsite school.
But her biggest role is as head gardener, leading a team of four other hard-working volunteers who all jokingly call her "boss".
Every Monday at 6.30am, Jill leaves her home in West Harbour to trek across the city and starts weeding, trimming, planting and watering the gardens surrounding Auckland Domain House and Grafton Mews House.
"I honestly can't wait to get there," she enthuses. "Even though I never get on top of the gardening, ever, because there's so much to do. We just go bit by bit."
It was March 1998 when Jill– a former lampshade maker – was flicking through a magazine and spied an ad looking for volunteers. She had never heard of the charity but liked the idea of "doing something that helped sick children".
"So I simply rolled up," says Jill. "I didn't mind what odd jobs they needed me to do, I was quite happy to just be there. Now I can't imagine my life if I wasn't there!"
She also never imagined any of her own family would end up needing to stay in a room at the Auckland complex. However, that's exactly what happened six years ago when Jill's granddaughter Addison was admitted to Starship Hospital's intensive care unit after a staphylococcus infection attacked her heart.
Initially doctors thought the preschooler, then four, had the flu. But on the Monday morning – just as Jill had arrived for her volunteering shift – her daughter Kyla rang with terrible news.
"She told me, 'We're on our way in the ambulance and I have two doctors with me, but I don't think she's going to make it Mum,'" recalls Jill. "The staph infection had attached on to Addison's heart, lungs and some joints, and started to eat away. She needed continuous antibiotics and several operations. It was very scary, but she made it through and is a happy little thing, despite being left with a heart defect."
Volunteering has now become a family affair. Jill's older granddaughters Kaitlin (18), Claudia (15), as well as Addison (10) serve alongside her, either gardening in school holidays or helping to sort out and wrap donated presents for families at Christmas.
The hardest part of her journey, reveals Jill, has been seeing children pass away.
One boy in particular, a nine-year-old named Scott, captured her heart and left a lasting impact."Scott came from a farm up north and he had cancer. I was preparing lunches in the kitchen there at the time and somebody introduced me to him. "He said to me, 'Oh, I've got a cow called Jill!'" she laughs.
"And so I became known to him as 'Jill the Cow' and he'd cheekily say it every time he saw me. He passed away one November, many years ago. The following November, his parents came back to Ronald McDonald House and brought a tiny fig tree, which they asked me to plant in the garden.
"So I planted it just before going away on summer holidays. But the whole time I worried about that fig tree. The weather was so dry and I kept thinking, 'I'm going to feel terrible if it dies!'" she admits.
"On my first day back from holiday, I ran to get to that tree and would you believe it, there was one fig on it.
"I was blown away and thought, 'Scotty, you've looked after it for us!'" Adds Jill, "His parents still come every year to visit us and look at that tree. It's massive now and laden with figs, which all the hospital staff enjoy eating."
While it's come as a surprise to be named one of the charity's longest-serving volunteers, the fit grandmother-of-four has no plans of slowing down.
"It's very rewarding and I meet so many amazing families," says Jill, who often drives home with a little tear in her eye.
"The only thing is, our team are all getting older and we need some more young ones coming through to help. "Many people say to me, 'Oh, you're so lucky having that job, I'd love to do something like that.' And my answer is: 'Well, just do it!'"
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