Giving hope to the needy

Margaret and John Purcell, who set up the DENNY Foundation after losing their son, have a new space in Warilla. Photo: DAVE TEASE
Margaret and John Purcell, who set up the DENNY Foundation after losing their son, have a new space in Warilla. Photo: DAVE TEASE

John and Margaret Purcell's son Dennis is never far from their thoughts.

When the counsellors lost their 25-year-old son to a mental illness last decade, they decided to fulfil a dream to start a volunteer organisation to help people affected by poverty, mental illness, depression, drug and alcohol addiction and loss by suicide.

Today, treasured memories of their late son inspire them to lead a growing team of volunteers who are making a difference in the lives of more than 60 Illawarra families.

This week the couple acknowledged the 50 volunteers at the launch of a new home for The DENNY Foundation in Warilla.

"We could not do what we do, particularly for those less fortunate than ourselves, without this dedicated team," Mr Purcell said.

"Predominantly we are about youth at risk and young people who are really struggling."

Mr Purcell pointed to a serving SAS commando who recently took a group of young people on a week-long wilderness program in the Blue Mountains.

He also recognised volunteers who helped run a party on Christmas Day for 50 families who had nowhere to go to celebrate and no presents to open.

"We got hundreds of toys and put on a five-course meal," Mr Purcell said.

"We had a great day and they had a great day."

Other DENNY services include a fleet of StreetBeat vans for street outreach.

"We reach out to street kids, the homeless, mentally ill and people who just want a listening ear."

The Purcells know how important this help is.

The foundation is named after their youngest son Dennis "Denny" Purcell, who took his life after 25 years of battling chronic endogenous depression.

"We don't celebrate Denny's final act, but we do celebrate his lifelong struggle to find an answer for mental illness," Mr Purcell said.

"As a family we were touched by his struggle and we can identify with many who have been down that path."

The Purcells are passionate advocates of a Spectrum Health and Education program run by their daughter Dr Lauren Purcell, which helps those on the autism spectrum, as well as the food program Boost For Families.

"We feed about 50 families every week who struggle to put food on the table ... with our emergency food program," Mr Purcell said.

"With the help of Aldi Supermarkets, IGA and others, we are able to get good nutritious food such as fruit and vegetables, bakery goods and tinned goods.

"Our food helps the women's refuge here in Warilla, two women's refuges in Wollongong, a men's shelter in Wollongong and a number of other agencies.

"We're also out in MacCabe Park on a Thursday night with the homeless.

"A lot of street kids and people who have a mental illness come by and find a listening ear.

"It's a safe and secure spot and they come to spend time with us."

Food packs are distributed to the Warrigal Care Op Shop and residents in Bundaleer Estate, Warrawong.

The DENNY Foundation assists people who have fallen into a life of dependency on alcohol, drugs or compulsions such as gambling, something else Mr Purcell has a deep personal understanding of.

"Having lost both a father and brother to chronic alcoholism, I am passionate in my pursuit to find an answer to that debilitating disease," Mr Purcell said.

"It is a huge burden. It places a great burden on families, on individuals, on the community and on our already overburdened health system."

The foundation offers hardship assistance for health, safety and well-being, and relief for basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing.

Mr Purcell said it had been a humbling 3½ years working with so many incredible volunteers.

Before semi-retirement his career included running crisis counselling and street outreach and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

Now he and his wife are joined by professionals with a diverse array of professional skills.

"We have doctors, accountants, solicitors and people from all walks of life," he said.

"They are just a great bunch of people. You don't have to motivate them because they have the same vision, passion, drive and energy."

Mr Purcell said the foundation's new home in Warilla would help centralise the operation and make it more efficient.

"What we had before was three fairly fragmented services, but the idea was to get a one-stop-shop with a community hub approach so we could benefit from the economies of scale," he said.

"Rather than reinvent the wheel, we found a niche.

"Right from the outset we said we want to make it lean and mean, so no-one gets paid."


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