Do you know that taking a day off from work can help change the lives of people with spinal cord injury?

Labelling it the “quintessential” Australian charity concept, media personality Sandra Sully launched the Big Day Off.

Now in its second year, following a localised pilot in 2015, the concept was inspired by former AFL player James McQuillan. James sustained quadriplegia in 2014 during a routine collision with an opponent in a country AFL match in Albury–Wodonga.

The Big Day Off involves businesses registering online and offering days off that staff can win by buying raffle tickets before 30 June 2016. All the money raised goes to spinal cord injury support services and finding a cure for spinal cord injury. The beneficiaries are Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA) and SpinalCure Australia.

“The best idea is a simple one,” said Ben Hollands from Dutch Media, speaking at the launch. Ben described how James’s story had touched him, so he joined forces with James and other Albury–Wodonga individuals and businesses to get the concept up and running.

The Big Day Off charity is managed by a board comprising: Jon Retford (Board Chairman), General Manager, Wilson Transformer Company; Kylie King, Journalist and Communications Strategist; Ben Hollands, Managing Director, Dutch Media; Adrian Kay, Practice Principal, Gardens Medical Group; David Koschitzke, Partner, Harris Lieberman; Kevin Mack, Policeman, Councillor Albury City and 2012 Premier’s Community Service Award recipient; and Cameron Diffey, Partner, Johnsons MME.

In a message of support, the Federal Minister for Health, Aged Care and Sport, Sussan Ley, said: “This concept, while inspired by James’s circumstances, aims to raise money and awareness for others in need of financial support. Funds raised will go towards important research into the treatment and, who knows, maybe a future cure in this field.” The Minister encouraged all businesses to get involved.

In jest, Sandra and Ben semi-likened the concept to former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s pronouncement after Australia won the America’s Cup in 1983: “I tell you what, any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up [to work] today is a bum.” But this time bosses would be “mugs”, not bums, for not giving a day off, they said.

SCIA and SpinalCure representatives also spoke at the launch, explaining how the funds raised would be spent. “When you have a spinal cord injury everything changes,” said SCIA CEO Peter Perry. “It’s been explained to me that having a spinal cord injury is like being picked up and plonked in a foreign country.” While government funding provided the basics, such as equipment and personal care, it didn’t cover all the support needs required to navigate living with such an injury—and this was where SCIA came in, Peter added.

SpinalCure CEO Duncan Wallace highlighted that “the sole aim” of his organisation “is to find a cure; it is inevitable. It just takes time and funding.” Duncan added: “We are attacking it from two fronts: treatments in the first few hours of an incident to reduce the level of injury and treatments to reconnect the damaged nerves in the spine.”

Former Newcastle Knights player Alex McKinnon, who sustained quadriplegia while playing NRL, also spoke at the launch. He said that while he had the support of the NRL and his family, others didn’t always have that, which made the Big Day Off important, as the funds raised would help change everyone’s lives.

Sandra, who is also a Big Day Off Ambassador, reinforced that no-one was immune to the effects of spinal cord injury and everyone was just a small step away from sustaining such an injury—all it took was a slip, trip or a fall.

NRL icon, former Parramatta Eels Captain and now Big Day Off Ambassador, Nathan Hindmarsh, said before the launch he couldn’t imagine life with a spinal cord injury. However, from the sidelines it looked like it had a huge impact on family life, employment and many other things, he said. A close friend of his recently sustained a spinal cord injury, which has given Nathan a whole new perspective on the effects of the injury.

Regional business Joss Facility Management is a leading employer in the Big Day Off. They were there from the start, and they are back again this year. Joss Facility Management also puts its money where its mouth is by employing James two days a week while he studies accountancy at Charles Sturt University in Albury–Wodonga. James was initially studying physiotherapy but had to change courses after sustaining quadriplegia.

One of last year’s winners from Joss Facility Management, Wayne Oakman, said: “I was one very excited Big Day Off winner in 2015; the last time I had won anything was a chook raffle back in about 1995; my Big Day Off was spent with a fishing rod in one hand and beer in the other.”

SCIA partner Johnson & Johnson Medical (Codman Neuro & Spine) is also on board this year and encourages all employers to do the same, saying the Big Day Off was a unique and fun way to engage staff and raise money to help people.

Last year The Personnel Group got into the spirit of things. “Across our organisation it was a game, as we had six different sites competing, [to see] who would donate the most based on office size …,” said a company spokesperson. “Winners were very vocal when they took their day off— letting everyone know.

“As an organisation that supports … people with a disability, this promotion was close to our hearts, and staff really responded well to it.”

Many other businesses have signed up, such as NRL, AFL and News Corp Australia.

This year’s other Big Day Off Ambassadors include Greater Western Sydney Giants’ Jack Steele, former Wallaby Adam Freier, and jockey Damien Oliver. Other supporters of the Big Day Off include RedBalloon Founding Director Naomi Simson and ARL Cowboys Co-Captain Johnathan Thurston.

Visit bigdayoff.org to register for the Big Day Off. Make sure you register and sell your raffle tickets before 30 June 2016.

This story was written by Helen Borger and first published in the autumn 2016 edition of Accord, a Spinal Cord Injuries Australia magazine.

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