Converting a pub into a life-saving charity hospital to honour a quintessential southern bloke like Blair Vining just felt right.
His wife Melissa reckons it would have gotten the nod of approval from the big fella too.
“It was this big brick building and a pub which I think he’d quite like. Blair’s initial concept was ‘if everyone brought a brick we could just build one’. Then it was so generously gifted to us,” she said.
In February 2020, ILT gave the Southern Charity Hospital a home by donating the Clifton Club Inn to be repurposed for the project.
Melissa was stunned by ILT’s support.
“I just burst into tears because all of a sudden it didn’t feel like I was in this project on my own. To have ILT come to the party with such a generous start, it was a huge relief and comfort. It felt real and that we could actually do this,” she said.
“We couldn’t get a better starting point. It would have taken us two years to raise the equivalent to build a building so that catapulted us forward and gave us a home. We will be able to start saving lives sooner than we ever imagined.”
ILT chairman Paddy O’Brien, said the board were delighted to give the Charity Hospital a home to kick start to the development.
“We were always motivated to find a way to make a significant contribution to such a worthy project. At the time we reviewed the best future use of the Clifton, and it became clear this would be a fantastic way for this asset to benefit our community.”
“It’s not the first time we have repurposed one of our buildings, and we know how effective it is. However, this decision has long lasting impact for our community, it will help save lives and that’s an incredibly powerful thing,” he said.
From the start the community rallied around this project and whole heartedly threw their support behind it. This is a testament to Southland but also to the desperate need identified for the hospital’s services. Its Buy a Brick fundraising campaign attracted donations from throughout New Zealand. Etched with heartfelt messages, the bricks now form an emotional walkway.
“When you’re taking on a project way outside your comfort zone – I don’t know anything about hospitals – to have the backing of your community and your country is incredibly humbling. I just know we will be helping people really quickly and honouring Blair’s last wish and that helps heaps as we adjust to a world without him here,” Melissa said.
“People brought bricks from Northland for example that just say ‘Kia kaha Southland’. They’re sending their love from all around the country even though they’ll never benefit from the hospital personally.
“There are really touching tributes from people who have lost someone so to know people will be walking up that path seeing all that love, they will know their procedure has been provided by all those people and they will take a lot of strength from that.”
Southlanders are renowned for supporting those who need it.
“I’ve always thought Southland people were incredible, but this experience of the past few years just takes it next level. I can’t even put into words.”
Even as his own health suffered, Blair’s unwavering commitment as a champion for such a vital cause undoubtedly touched many hearts.
“Blair felt a strong sense of people being too sick to speak up or they were frightened of the consequences if they did. He felt a sense of duty to do that for all of those people,” Melissa said.
“Fronting this publicly is not something I like doing but Blair did it when he was so unwell, the least I can do is get it finished for him.
“People seeing you at your worst, your most vulnerable and in your darkest moments, it’s hard enough doing that when you’re at your best, let alone when you’re grieving the loss of your person.”
Despite knowing their time with Blair was cruelly limited, the Vining family selflessly shared their hero.
“He was determined that was the plan from the start whereas I wanted to hunker down and just savour every precious minute. But by contributing to something that’s bigger than yourself, there’s healing in that as well. Knowing the alternative is to do nothing, that doesn’t sit well with me either and it’s certainly not how he would want us to honour him. This is how we can show how much we loved him,” Melissa said.
“He said ‘you’ve got two weeks to be sad and then you’ve got to slap your leg and get building that hospital’. He didn’t just give those instructions, he lived like that through being positive.”
The experience has left Melissa acutely attuned to the word cancer.
“I was completely oblivious previously … I thought if people were sick, they would get the help they needed. What I soon discovered was a whole minefield. And it’s never just the person themselves affected.
“People who are sharing with us their struggle with a terminal illness, their lack of assistance from the hospital, that’s a very personal thing so it’s a privilege that someone would trust you enough with their pain or their angst. The responsible thing to do is try and hold the Government to account but in the meantime try and ease some of that suffering.
“When we started people who contacted us were left eight months without an answer and that’s eight months which could have led to their death. That in itself is a good reason to get out of bed and get this hospital built.”
“It’s community spirit and some of that famous No 8 wire attitude which will get us there. It’s the Southland way and it will save lives.”
With no Government funding, the Southern Charity Hospital will rely solely on donations, grants and community fundraising to help southerners in need. Patients of the Southern Charity Hospital will come from the Southern District Health Board zone: this covers both the Southland and Otago regions.
Its workforce will be made up of medical professionals donating their time and expertise to the cause.
“Doctors and nurses have huge workloads but they all feel committed to this project and are giving up their time to make it a reality. That speaks volumes.”
After countless hours by volunteers, the doors are set to open in the near future. But not before a celebration and, of course another fundraising push.
ILT chairman Paddy O’Brien said the organisation had been committed to supporting the charity hospital since its inception.
“We’re pleased to play a small part in Blair’s legacy and having supported the inaugural Pack the Park, we are thrilled to be involved in the upcoming edition, including the official After Match celebrations”, he said.