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Bill's passion for Red Shield Appeal driven by desire to make a difference

Bill's passion for Red Shield Appeal driven by desire to make a difference

Bill's passion for Red Shield Appeal driven by desire to make a difference

28 May 2017

Bill Dowson has been involved in fundraising for The Salvation Army for the past 30 years.

By Lauren Martin

Bill Dowson is not a man you easily forget. With his big smile, hearty laugh and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he attacks life with gusto.

The Residential Appeal Chairman for the Red Shield Appeal in the Illawarra region, he has been raising money for the Salvos for the past 30 years. He says it never gets boring.

A well-known Wollongong businessman, Bill has never been a churchgoing man, but he has a huge amount of respect for The Salvation Army and its “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up” approach to ministry. 

He realised he had a knack for fundraising when he was in his mid-20s and managed to squeeze $9000 out of his fellow Apexians during a dinner meeting. They had  been asked by a local charity if they might help raise $5000 for a wheelchair for a young man in need, but after 45 minutes baiting fellow colleagues, pitting businessman against businessman to see who could write the biggest cheque, he and a mate had nearly doubled their target. And they’d had quite an enjoyable time doing so!

“I’d always been happy to kick in and help,” he says. “But there are bigger things that you can do than a chook raffle. I realised that you need to make a commitment not just a contribution.”

His association with Apex led to a relationship with the local Salvation Army. An officer came to speak with the club one evening and mentioned that during the Dapto floods of the early 1980s, their relief efforts were somewhat hampered trying to work from a small trailer. “So, in a drunken fit of stupidity after the dinner, DMW [the now chair of the Illawarra Red Shield Appeal, David Williams] and I decided that we needed to do something about this,” recalls Bill gregariously. 

A fellow Apex member had an old site-trailer that wasn’t being used. Bill promptly towed it to the back of his workplace and began the task of refurbishing it, calling in favours from friends and convincing the local TAFE to assign its carpentry and cabinet-making students to fit out a kitchen. 

The finished product was a large emergency services caravan, donated to The Salvation Army in the presence of state government ministers and “some gurus that I didn’t know from The Salvation Army in Sydney,” laughs Bill. (The ceremony took place in the car park of a men’s only club and included the smashing of a bottle of champagne over the trailer’s draw-bar, which Bill, who loves a good story, takes great delight in telling!)

Sadly, the trailer didn’t last more than eight weeks. The Salvos used it to assist during bushfires on nearby Mount Keira and then it was torched during a break-in at the back of the Wollongong Salvation Army. The setback, however, didn’t dampen Bill’s enthusiasm and heart to help others. 

Bill knows what it is like to experience hardship. He grew up in “what was pretty much slums in the north-east of England”, in a row of dockside terrace houses, before migrating to Australia with his family and one suitcase for a better life. He remembers The Salvation Army band playing Christmas carols at the end of his street in the UK, when the fresh white snow would make everything look clean and beautiful for the shortest of moments, before slush and coal-dust turned it back into what Bill describes as the “glummest place on earth”.

The first time he ever saw The Salvation Army's welfare work in action was as a boy in 1968. He and his family were living in a migrant hostel in Wollongong, waiting to be settled in public housing. Some of the worst bushfires to ever hit the area were raging, and elderly folk from the ‘Diggers Rest Home’ had to be evacuated. They were relocated to the migrant hostel but had nowhere to sleep. “I can remember the Salvos at that point bringing in folding beds and the like because the hostel didn’t have the capacity but the Salvos did,” he says. 

Growing up in public housing wasn’t easy and Bill often saw the neighbourhood results of Salvation Army care and assistance throughout his childhood and teenage years, making him “an exceptionally grateful man” – a statement backed wholeheartedly by anyone who knows him.

He and his wife have owned a number of successful businesses and raised two of their own children, whilst providing foster care to many others. Bill retired in 2014, but that only lasted four months before he got bored and took on a new project. He’ll turn 60 this year and jokes that this will be his last Red Shield Appeal, but he knows that while he’s having fun and his contribution is making a difference, he’ll continue to support The Salvation Army, an organisation he adores largely due to the people he's met in it over the years.  

“There are moments that make you realise that your contribution is valuable,” he says. “Karen [Walker, Illawarra Salvation Army Community Fundraising and Public Relations coordinator] and I were in a meeting here one day and Karen’s daughter rang and said there was a lady that rang and was hungry. So, Karen and I went to Woolies and we just bought a basketful of food. 

"We drove to the lady’s home, and she was with her mum and they were literally very hungry and we gave them some food. I remember watching Karen hug this lady and her mother. There was a strong smell of cigarettes and a strong smell of alcohol. But no judgment. 

“That sort of thing is memorable. That makes it worthwhile.”

The Red Shield Appeal Doorknock is being held this weekend.

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