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Meet James for the Cairns Wellbeing Centre


When James turned 40 his doctor told him his health was in a bad way and his future didn't look good. Today, James is not only healthy and strong he's giving back to the place that changed his life.

It's hard to believe looking at him now, healthy and happy, that doctors told James he didn't have much of a future after 40.

With a cheeky grin and chuckle, James says he turned 47 this month. "So that doctor's a liar!"

James was suffering from chronic kidney disease and needed dialysis, he had heart problems, severe depression and was suicidal. To get medical help James needed to leave his hometown of Chillagoe in Far North Queensland. His doctor referred him to the Red Cross Wellbeing Centre in Cairns to stay while he received treatment.

"I came down for treatment and to get away from families, friends and everyone because they were getting me down."

James says he was in a bad way and wanted a healthier, positive future.

"I really didn't believe him [the doctor], because I knew I could get through this, even if I go through it on my own, which I did. I just forced myself to get up and don't let things drag me down and get to me and pull me down," he says.

"I always think that there's a future there, there's hope and I got to do something about it. So I really forced myself to, even when I felt very sick, that I had to force myself to do things."

Away from family and friends, the Red Cross Wellbeing Centre was a place James felt comfortable and had a lot of support during and after his treatment.

Now feeling healthy and strong, James volunteers at the centre, giving back to the place which helped change his life.

The centre is one of a number of wellbeing centres throughout Queensland, providing a safe, healing and culturally appropriate place to stay for people from regional and remote areas accessing health services in the city.

Guests are receiving treatment for a range of health conditions and may stay one night to several weeks and may often be frequent visitors. The centre has large family rooms for those with partners, carers or children.

Javier Suarez, Red Cross Life Skills Officer coordinates activities at the Cairns facility to create a comfortable space for guests of all cultural backgrounds, from basket weaving and fishing to healthy cooking classes and antenatal classes.

"It's about being holistic and flexible and working with the community, to allow people to empower themselves and to be able to create solutions from their own needs," he says.

Hand massages are extremely popular among those staying at the centre, as is the aquaponic garden which is growing a range of fresh produce like tomatoes, chillies, capsicum and strawberries.

The heathy garden produce is used in meals cooked by guests in the communal kitchen. It's created a lot of interest with residents even keen to install their own when they return back to their communities. Javier says the activities are about finding ways to engage with people, making them feel comfortable to participate and talk if they want to. Also important is building and strengthening community partnerships.

"We are working with so many community partners like Apunipima Cape York Health Council, Wu Chopperan Health Service, Uniting Care community, Mission Australia, Cancer Council, Bunnings Warehouse. This list goes on."

Javier says volunteers like James who've stayed at the centre and been through some of the same health issues as guests, are crucial to creating a healing, safe and friendly environment.

"James is an inspiration for everyone that knows him. He's an asset - just the presence of James is a role model for men and women in the centre. "

For James his future is bright.

"My health is improving, and making me do a lot of things that I've never done, that I couldn't do before, like being a volunteer at Red Cross Wellbeing Centre in Cairns," he explains. "I talk to people who are sick in hospital, sit and talk and liaise with them and just comfort them, show them my love and respect towards them."

James wants to use his story to help other Indigenous men and start a men's group at the centre, talking about alcohol and drugs and mental health issues.

"Where they feel comfortable and they can share. They're not alone and there's always a helping hand there for them and love."

"[I want to] help them and to get them to understand there is future, there is hope, there's a plan ahead."

James says giving back as a volunteer makes him feel confident and stronger to keep sharing his story, especially with those going through the same tough times he went through.

"Don't give up in what you do, even if you have to force yourself to get up and do things you'll get through it. I know it's hard, but you'll get through. Just stand strong. Don't ever think that you'll never ever get out of it. You will."