Gary Sillett and family

Sean Mooney reports on a program helping fathers deal with distress and grief.

A pilot program for fathers with children in the Royal North Shore Hospital's (RNSH) Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is now being rolled out across Sydney, including at Sydney Children's Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Women. The Pillars of Strength initiative has been providing support for fathers whose babies have been in the RNSH NICU since August 2011, and for men across NSW whose children have been stillborn or who have died soon after birth, since February 2012. Plans are also in place for the program to go national in 2013.

The registered charity uses a two-pronged approach to assist fathers. One is a respite program that lets fathers take time out to participate in recreational activities or attend sporting events with friends, family and other fathers in similar situations. They can even have a hit of golf at a driving range or a work-out at the gym, all at no cost. The other is a trial of in-hospital support such as parking vouchers and professional financial advice. Regional programs are also in development, and aim to cover some of the fathers' short-term accommodation, travel and food costs while their children are in hospital. Since the pilot program began, it has provided more than $14,000 worth of support to fathers. As Pillars of Strength receives no government backing, funding comes from private donors.

The program's founder, Gary Sillett (pictured with his family), says the main focus is on the respite program and forming partnerships with major sporting teams, venues and organisations. "The key thing is to give men a sense of normality within a sporting environment," says Sillett. "Every activity or event a dad goes to, they must bring a mate. They can't go by themselves. It helps a dad, whether they're in a hospital environment or in the bereaved space, to re-engage with their family unit, friends or brothers. They might have been meaning to, but it's been in the too-hard basket."

While there are tentative plans to expand the program to cover other hospital departments such as oncology and paediatrics, as well as carers of children with a disability, Sillett wants to take it one step at a time. "We're looking at the program to understand the needs and costs, because anything we do has to be sustainable and viable," he says. "We can't start something and six months later shut it down." To this end, students from the University of Western Sydney working as interns at Pillars of Strength have been assigned to interview fathers and NICU staff about the respite program. Working with nurses, social workers and hospital administration staff, the students are also involved in developing an operations manual to help the program go national.

As general manager of ICARE, an international development organisation that focuses on educating women and young people, Sillett has the background and experience to guide Pillars of Strength's expansion. "I've always had a passion for helping people and doing start-ups, restructuring or building, and if you have a passion for something, you have a better chance of success," he says.

Sillett's commitment to the cause is also intensely personal. His wife, Amy, gave birth to son Isaac 14 weeks prematurely in December 2010, and Isaac died after spending two days in the RNSH NICU. It was this experience that led the Ryde resident, whose first son Callum turns three this month, to create Pillars of Strength. "By my going through the situation, we identified there was a need, and then by contacting people and talking with hospitals, we found there was a massive gap," he explains.

"We could access counselling and support groups for mums, but that didn't work for me, and there was nothing solely for the dads. When you have a child who is sick or you are in that bereaved space, you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. That's how the concept came about. We're creating an informal peer-support network. If you work as a team and know you're not alone, you are much stronger and always connected."

Glenn Donaldson remembers the incredible pain he and his wife felt when their daughter was stillborn late last year. "We both went into a different world," he says. "We experienced so many different feelings, from anger through to 'why us?' before trying to say we were happy and it was all right – it wasn't." Donaldson says while there was assistance for his wife and for both of them as a couple, there was nothing designed solely for men. "Then out of the blue three months later, I got an email from one of my friends about the Pillars of Strength golf day. He said there were a lot of people going through what I was going through, and he asked me to turn up. So I went, met Gary and the other guys and it was one of the greatest days I have ever had. Then we went to the footy another day; we just got out there. You have to bring mates and brothers along and you don't talk about what you've gone through, you are just there enjoying everyone's company, just to get away from it for a bit."

Sillett believes such experiences can encourage men to support friends who are similarly affected. "We hope that what we're doing will act as a catalyst for men to get their mates out into the fresh air for some time out," he says. Feedback from the men's partners has also been fantastic, says Sillett. "They'll say their partner has not been connecting with his mates, but has been meaning to. Now that he is, he's walking around with his head held higher and chest puffed out a little bit. It makes him feel good about himself, even if it's only for a short time. That's great to hear."

For more information about Pillars of Strength, or to access or donate to the program, visit

This article was first published in the July 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.

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