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This year’s Chairman’s Medal recipient is a long-time volunteer – and a lupus sufferer herself.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Retiree and volunteer Carolyn Comyns’ dedicated support has been invaluable to the work of the Autoimmune Resource and Research Centre (ARRC) for the past 11 years, and has now earned her the honour of receiving Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation’s 2019 Chairman’s Medal.

The Chairman’s Medal was established by the Charitable Foundation to honour the late Michael (Mike) Slater, who was both Chairman of Newcastle Permanent Building Society and Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation for almost 10 years, and acknowledges the contribution of an outstanding volunteer to their organisation’s work. Dr Marline Squance, ARRC CEO, said there could not be a more deserving recipient than Carolyn to receive the 2019 Chairman’s Medal –  the second awarded since it was established in 2018.

“I was so excited when I heard that Carolyn was being acknowledged for the work that she does,” she explains. “As a small charity that offers support and education to people with autoimmune diseases, we wouldn’t exist without our volunteers. Since Carolyn started volunteering for us in 2008, she’s become more and more involved and is now instrumental in our organisation.”

Carolyn Comyns, ARRC Volunteer
2019 Chairman's medal recipient Carolyn Comyns
Introducing this year's Chairman's Medal recipient, Carolyn Comyns.

Charitable Foundation Chair, Phil Neat, said the Chairman’s Medal recognised the value of volunteers within community organisations and celebrated their achievements, particularly in regional communities.

“The Charitable Foundation funds the tangible items community organisations need to deliver their life-changing programs to those people most in need within our community, and the Chairman’s Medal recognises the intangible and invaluable contribution made by volunteers in delivering those programs.

“Volunteering is the ultimate display of dedication to a cause, other people’s well-being and service to community.  This award recognises Carolyn’s selflessness as a volunteer with ARRC and the grass-roots way she is helping to rewrite the future for other people living with an autoimmune disease,” Phil said.

ARRC supports people with a range of autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Scleroderma and Sjogrens Syndrome. Autoimmune diseases primarily affect women and are more likely to appear at ages 25-45. Most have no known cure, so ARRC’s mission is to improve quality of life for people living with autoimmune diseases – through education, support, advocacy and access to the latest screening and therapeutic strategies. The charity does this with no government funding, and relies on grants like those extended by the Charitable Foundation – as well as its hard-working volunteers.

"Since Carolyn started volunteering for us in 2008, she’s become more and more involved and is now instrumental in our organisation," said Dr Marline Squance, ARRC CEO.

The Charitable Foundation recognises the important role volunteers play in regional areas – and charities like ARRC count on that help to deliver programs  and initiatives that improve the lives of people facing disadvantage, marginalisation or isolation.

“People who live in regional and rural areas often miss out on access to allied health and specialist services – and there’s not a lot of awareness out there, so people can feel isolated and find it hard to connect with others who have the same illness or suffer the same symptoms,” explains Marline. “And if you can get that support, you’re going to be in a better position to learn to manage your illness.”

That’s where Carolyn has come in. Despite living with lupus herself since her diagnosis in 2008, she’s happily become ARRC’s ‘go-to lady’ – helping with everything from fundraising to admin, to selling patient wellness products and distributing fact sheets and brochures. But perhaps the role in which Carolyn has really come into her own is offering support to newly diagnosed people who are feeling vulnerable and unsure how to navigate the often confusing health system.

“Carolyn has been the prime contact for Newcastle’s Café Conversation group, which meets to support patients and share experiences and social times together,” says Marline. “It’s vital that people living with disease finds someone they can relate to – and Carolyn’s empathy with other people living with autoimmune illness allows her to ease the worries of new patients. A new patient is often scared, and her understanding of the confusion and grief that can occur when given a diagnosis of illness is profound. She has the ability to help people find their way forward after a diagnosis.”

Carolyn knows all about the day-to-day challenges of autoimmune disease. “I suffer fatigue, joint pain, muscle pain – it’s a matter of managing what you can do,” she explains. “You’re not sure when the pain will hit so you have to take into consideration where you’re going, how long it’ll be and whether you’ll be able to get through the day comfortably. It’s unexpected; you feel like you’re getting the flu.”

She says she was honoured when she found out she was the recipient of the 2019 Chairman’s Medal. “I don’t like to draw attention to myself so I find that awkward, but I’m also very pleased for the funds to be going to ARRC for the excellent work that they do,” she said. “It’ll allow them to reach more people, to pass on more information and guide others through their journey.”

And despite dealing with her own illness, Carolyn shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to her charity work with ARRC.

“I just want to continue supporting ARRC so they can support other people and I can do whatever I can do to help them achieve this,” she says.

“There are so many people out there who don’t have the support that I have; it’s an ongoing thing and so many people need help. Plus, there’s always enjoyment when you get a group of women together – we have a chat and a laugh. It’s helped me too. It’s made me go out, talk to people and mix with new people. I’ve always done some volunteer work but it does make a difference to mix with others – it keeps a smile on your face.”

Read more about the Chairman's Medal

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