New Choc CEO’s dedication to helping children in need
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Johannesburg - It’s been nearly three months since Hedley Lewis vacated his seat as CEO at the Smile Foundation in South Africa.
Having spent over a decade at the charity, which makes a difference in the lives of South African children with facial irregularities, Lewis admits it was an “incredibly difficult” decision to walk away from a place that he holds close to his heart and deeply cares for.
“It was a very emotional and difficult decision to pursue a different goal,” says Lewis.
Aside from helping further enhance healthcare for the vulnerable at the Smile Foundation, Lewis built a strong relationship with his team, so having to walk away from “family” made the decision far harder, he says.
“The Smile Foundation has a small team which had a phenomenal connection, a connection that enabled us to strategise and brainstorm to maximise every opportunity,” says Lewis.
“We worked as a team for the good of the patients. I thrive on new information and learning from people who I work with or meet.
“Each one of the team taught me important life lessons that I will use for the rest of my career. I also had the opportunity to engage with individuals on various levels, many of whom became part of my close friendship circle.”
Despite having no intention to leave the Smile Foundation at the time, Lewis says he simply couldn’t turn down the opportunity when the Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa (Choc) came knocking.
“I was approached by a recruiter to replace the previous CEO at Choc. Although I was not looking for a new opportunity, once this ideal role was presented to me, I was confident that this was the right role for my growth and career.
“In my work at Smile Foundation, I assisted the needs of children and once again I would be able to do life-saving work for children.”
Choc, which provides free, comprehensive support to families of children with cancer and life-threatening blood disorders, provided the perfect platform for Lewis to continue his work.
Now three months into his tenure, the CEO of Choc admits that it hasn’t been an easy transition. However, he is delighted with the new challenge.
“Any transition into a new role is difficult. However, this was compounded by the severity of the Covid pandemic.
“At the time I joined, daily infections were very high and the whole Choc team worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of staff, volunteers, patients and their families.
“Despite the environmental challenges, I was blessed to have joined an organisation with such warmth, love and professionalism.
Despite the initial challenges, Lewis has rolled up his sleeves and has been working hard to help the organisation grow further.
“There is one programme at Choc, in particular, I would like to share with you.
“I had the wonderful opportunity to visit various accommodation facilities around South Africa. There are 13 accommodation facilities owned by Choc and supported by generous donors throughout South Africa.
“On the outside, it is just a house, it has walls and a garden, like many others and even a beautiful play area in the backyard, but what makes a Choc house a home away from home?
“Inside the house is where our dedicated staff and volunteers are able to keep more than hope alive. It is a place where our families will thrive, not just survive. Once a child or teenager is receiving treatment, this is a place of safety in between chemo days, check-up days and long stays.
“Our families do not need to worry about meals, blankets or transport, their only focus will be their children or teenagers who are part of this journey they never asked to be on.
“The house becomes a place where they meet other families who are on the same journey and can support each other along the way. The children can play in a sanitised, clean environment ensuring their immune systems are not compromised.”
"Once Covid-19 is over and we allow guests to visit our homes once again, I urge anyone who is able to, to come and visit one of our beautiful Choc homes and see first-hand one of our core programmes.“
Lewis says his main aim is to help more children who require treatment to receive help, both medically and augmentatively, as early as possible.
“This can only be possible if numerous NGOs and stakeholders who work with cancer continue to join or connect with the various networks to reduce duplication and maximise care to the patient. Covid-19 continues to teach us that unity is the only way to enhance hope both in our country and to those who need it.
“Choc has been in existence for 42 years. It is well established within the world of paediatric oncology with four major foundations: psychosocial emotional support for the patients and their families, practical support in the forms of housing and transport amongst others, awareness-raising and educating on early detection, and advocacy.
“My aim is to build on to the current ethos. To continue with the values of a patient-centric organisation.”
However, Lewis and his team at Choc have plenty of hurdles to overcome if they are to achieve their goals.
“Choc’s biggest challenge is carrying the message far and wide pertaining to the early warning signs of childhood cancer and how it could save lives. It is estimated that two-thirds of children with cancer never reach a treatment centre, and of those that do, most are in late stages of the disease.”
This month is of particular importance to Lewis and his team at Choc.
September marks Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, that is marked worldwide.
Known as “Gold September”, it is an annual campaign that is run to raise awareness of childhood cancer.
Lewis and his team have been working tirelessly this month to ramp up awareness of childhood cancer in the country.
“There are many advances in paediatric oncology, yet cancer remains a leading cause of mortality in children,” says Lewis.
“It is imperative that children are diagnosed early for effective treatment of early-stage disease, which will translate into favourable outcomes and improved overall survival. Many factors are responsible for delays in childhood cancer, including the child’s age, family’s socio-economic status, parental educational level, distance of residence from the hospital, cancer type, site, stage, myths that lead to stigma and the lack of knowledge on the early warning signs of childhood cancer.
“Many children in low- and middle-income countries also have poor access to hospitals, which in turn lack essential diagnostic tests, experience a shortage of nursing medical and surgical personnel, inadequate and erratic supply of basic pharmaceutical and chemotherapeutic agents, and an absence of radiotherapy, surgical and intensive care facilities.
“These are but some of the factors which contribute to patients presenting themselves with advanced disease and resultant poorer outcomes.”
“As neonatal, infant and child health improve in South Africa, communicable diseases, such as respiratory and diarrhoeal diseases, HIV-Aids and tuberculosis are better controlled. It is imperative to focus on non-communicable diseases such as childhood cancer and identify these diseases early, have access to the correct diagnostics and therapeutics and ensure the availability of supportive care to improve overall survival of our children with cancer.”
While there is plenty of work to be done, Lewis says he is up for the challenge.
His desire and commitment to helping children in need in South Africa is what keeps him motivated.
“I’m encouraged every day by the strength of the families who travel the journey of having a child with cancer. I’m inspired that no matter how difficult emotionally and physically it may be they find a way to smile and to continue.
“Being able to play a small role in their lives drives me, and allows me to dig deeper to look for new opportunities. I value being able to be the voice for those who don’t have one.”