Making sure the kids are all right

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KIDS Foundation managing director Susie O'Neill
KIDS Foundation managing director Susie O'Neill

It was Susie O’Neill’s first primary school teaching round, in 1980, when she noticed the little girl with cigarette burns on the back of her hand, that set Susie on a path that led to the formation of the KIDS Foundation.

She called in the authorities to intervene on the girl’s behalf, later volunteered with the Children’s Protection Society and also helped create Ballarat’s first after-school and holiday program.

“I specialised in working with children at risk and became involved with the Children’s Protection Society,” says Susie. “In 2000 we opened our first rehabilitation facility which was called Pete’s Place. The first child in there was a burns survivor.”

The KIDS Foundation is about supporting young people who have experienced life-changing injuries to deal with the challenges they have been dealt.

Dealing with challenges is something Susie, who took up the gruelling sport of Iron Man competition in her early 40s, knows from direct experience.

Escaping sad realities

Susie’s work exposes her to some sad realities about life. But in Iron Man there is escape.

Iron Man comprises a 3.8-kilometre swim, a 180-kilometre bike ride and a full 42-kilometre marathon. Susie was inspired by the struggles of people finishing well behind the elite performers in the sport, stragglers who knew they were never going to win but who had their own achievements to make.

“I went and asked my father-in-law who’s a swimming teacher to teach me to swim, because I couldn’t even swim a lap of the pool. I went and bought my first bike at 40 and started doing Iron Mans. I have now done 16.”

While the sport is challenging enough, circumstances threw up other hurdles. A road accident in which she damaged her spine meant Susie still competed in an Iron Man as planned, but walked instead of ran the 42-kilometre leg, and two months later had back surgery to complete her recovery. A bike accident in Bali broke her leg in five places, and three years ago a tumour on her aorta required open-heart surgery.

Iron Man saved my life

The tumour was discovered only after Susie noticed her pulse racing faster than usual on a long-distance bike ride. “I was told that if I hadn’t had the surgery I had only a few weeks to live, because the tumour fell off during surgery. So in a way, Iron Man competitions saved my life.”

Still Susie, now a grandmother, continues to confront her challenges.

She had just decided to retire from long-distance competition when an invitation to compete in the Hawaiian Iron Man event in October this year materialised. Result? Long-distance retirement postponed.

Photo: Shannon  Morris


If you would like to support the KIDS Foundation, contact the RACV Community Foundation. Email: or phone 9790 2919.

Written by Ian Munro
July 17, 2017