As dark cloud of personal grief was all encompassing for Elaine and Mel Gamer, little did they realise a speck of a silver-lining would shine over Mount Isa 40 years on.
Nor would they have believed a promise made to their beloved daughter, Lisa, would gain such momentum that over four decades, the residents of the North West would brighten the sorrow of her death, to the tune of $1.7 million - give or take a head shave, an empty can or a bag of manure.
Leukaemia, an acute or chronic disease characterised by extreme overproduction of white blood cells has insidiously changed the hopes and dreams of the Gamers and other families in the North West.
This blood cancer, like all cancers, does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age, race, nor if its human incubators are rich or poor and neither has the support offered to patients and their families, by the Mount Isa Branch of Leukaemia Foundation.
Elaine and Mel Gamer vowed to honour Lisa's wishes to help others in her condition. In 1978 they invited friends and family to set up a support network for leukaemia patients, resulting in the formation of the Mount Isa Support Group which rapidly grew into one of the most highly respected local not-for-profit organisations.
Never one to mind getting her hands dirty for a good cause group member, Kath Swift, soon gained her 'shovologist' (colloquial slang for one who swings a shovel) title in the outback paddocks as she shovelled and bagged manure for sale and so started forty years of fund-raising with her 'out-of-the-box' ideas.
From manure to garage sales, empty aluminium cans to old batteries, bridal cavalcades to progressive dinners, Kath and her team of volunteers including her loyal sister, Joyce, looked upon everything and everyone as potential dollar earners.
"The spirit of the North West never says 'No', so we just went on year after year asking people to fork out and they did!"
"One year during the World's Greatest Shave, a larrikin cowboy warned the girls they'd get a scare when they shaved his head ... several hundred dollars later, his tangled tresses were gone to reveal an intimidating cobra in strike pose tattooed on his skull ... it scared the daylights out of us alright ... but it was good fun."
That was the year, 2007, when $60,500 was raised in the region through hundreds of people having their heads shaved in recognition of the loss of hair leukaemia patients went through as they underwent chemotherapy.
It was also the year Leukaemia Foundation Queensland crossed over the $3million fund-raising bar for the first time.
Former Leukaemia Foundation Queensland CEO Peter Johnstone praised the achievements of the Mount Isa Branch, in leading the razor-sharp charge into shaving heads.
But fund-raising is no walk in the park, literally or figuratively, as has been evidenced over the years as the Mount Isa Branch worked hard to keep its head and reputation above reproach.
From internal snipes and serious allegations of misconduct, the naysayers said their piece and made vacuous personal threats; all the while the branch's staunch and dedicated members held their heads high and continued to uphold the last wishes of Lisa Gamer.
"All money raised in the North West, stays in the North West," said Kath Swift proudly.
"Lisa's parents made a promise to her, that they would help local leukaemia patients in their time of need and that is exactly what we continue to do today. We ensure that these families are not financially out of pocket during treatment - be it for seven weeks, three months or four years."
With hands long clean after years of bagging and selling manure, the Leukaemia Ladies started to gift wrap Christmas presents in the Kmart Plaza, for the convenience of time-strapped shoppers; all for a small donation. This new idea was an immediate success and in its first year raised $11,000.
"No parcel was too big or too small for the team and we wrapped everything from a cake of soap to television sets and even a bicycle one year," Kath reminisced.
"We never turned anything down."
That has been the essence of the Leukaemia Ladies, they never turned anything down, if they could make another dollar for the Leukaemia Foundation.
And for many decades, the Leukaemia Ladies supported both the local rodeo queen quest and the State Quest for a Cure entrants, Chelsea Henry, Michelle Caspani, Rebecca Bailey, Suzi McHugh, Kathy-Lee Gordon, Katie Swift, Megan Firth among the many young women to have raised more than $500,000.
They may not have taken home a winner's sash, but both Peter Nielsen and Brett Peterson proudly stood alongside their female entrants as they broke down the gender bias in the quests.
For Cecile Edmonds her entry to both the rodeo queen quest in 2008 and the State Quest for a Cure, the following year, were bitter-sweet experiences as her beloved mother was in treatment for leukaemia during these times and sadly died before Cecile was named winner of the Quest for a Cure with a fund-raising total of $88,000.
"I was humbled by the financial support of the people of the North West in helping me to raise such a large amount of money," she said.
"So, when they presented me with the winner's Holden Barina, I turned to Kath Swift and said this is for the Mount Isa Branch, you need it more than me!"
Such generosity encapsulated the spirit of thankfulness for the dedication of the Leukaemia Ladies and acknowledgement of Lisa Gamer's wish to help leukaemia patients in Mount Isa and the North West.
Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton www.kim-mareeburton.com
Photographs supplied by North West Star newspaper and Kath Swift.
Information sourced from the Leukaemia Foundation newsletters, the North West Star and personal interviews with Kath Swift and Cecile Edmonds.
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