Leeuwin Foundation lunch delivers a record $5.7m for Telethon

Hancock Prospecting chief executive operations Gerhard Veldsman and Amy and Basil Zempilas with Fat Cat. Credit: Alan Chau/The West Australian

Standing in front of Perth’s business and community leaders, Rommel Niblett’s voice cracks as he opens up about his son’s birth.

In the hours prior — as the exclusive Leeuwin Lunch tracked towards raising a record $5.7 million for Telethon — the crowd laughed and joked as they lapped up the speeches and generously made their bids in the fun-filled auction.

When Mr Niblett began to speak, you could hear a pin drop.

In 2015, Mr Niblett and his wife Rhiannon had just become new parents, basking in the joyous first moments with their son, Bodhi.

Recalling what came next, Mr Niblett wiped away the tears as he spoke about his family’s struggle when Bodhi experienced Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy.

A lack of oxygen during birth — causing damage to the brain — left Bodhi battling 17 disabilities.

“This essentially means he may never talk, walk, eat, and has a lower life expectancy than we would all expect,” Mr Niblett told the hundred-strong crowd.

“We certainly lived in denial. We were living in survival mode, touches of suicidal thoughts. Hate, our souls were in anguish, and certainly, our lives were in total confusion.

“Our life as a family was circling darkness — depression, numbness, anger, sorrow.

“The following years were a haze of hospital visits and new diagnoses after new diagnoses. Each one rubbing dirt into reopened scars.

“Every aspect of our lives was a twisted parody of what my wife and I had dreamed about when we first got married.”

Broken and seemingly alone, Mr Niblett said that had it not been for Telethon — and the more than 20 beneficiaries his family relied on — he was not sure if he would still be alive.

“My family was lucky to have a community; it takes a village to raise a child,” he said.

“Somehow we found ourselves surrounded by Telethon beneficiaries who said ‘we will not let you fall, you are not alone and we will hold and support you as best we can’.”

Against the backdrop of a dreary day on Sunday, the function room at Leeuwin Estate was filled with warmth — Telethon’s most generous supporters putting their hands in their pockets to play a significant role in that aforementioned “village”.

More than half of this year’s attendees were joining the lunch for the first time — including former Premier Mark McGowan.

Despite an early start at Network Aviation’s terminal, Perth’s A-list was quickly galvanized by effervescent emcee Tina Altieri, who introduced herself by letting guests know the trip was about friendship, fine wine, and philanthropy.

After flying to Busselton courtesy of Qantas, South West Coach Lines ferried the groups to Leeuwin Estate, with karaoke kicked off by none other than Human Nature’s Phil Burton.

His rendition of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline was followed by former State Treasurer and West Coast Eagles board member Ben Wyatt, who aptly belted out his version of Eagle Rock by Daddy Cool.

The annual event, which features fine wine and food provided by Leeuwin Estate’s Horgan Family — who also donated $50,000 through their Leeuwin Foundation — is one of the peak philanthropic events in the lead-up to Telethon.

And it was Channel 7 Telethon Trust chairman Richard Goyder who laid down the gauntlet early on.

If the room were to raise $2 million, Mr Goyder said, a mystery donor would match it.

“Telethon is pretty amazing. A number of you are new here, doing this for the first time. It is my sincere hope you will leave here today feeling inspired,” he said.

“Telethon brings us together as a community and it helps us do things for the people that really matter in our community — our kids and their health and wellbeing, and the families that need the support as well.

“It enables us to become a much better place.”

The crowd quickly set out to smash Mr Goyder’s donation challenge.

A wishlist of medical equipment for parents and Telethon beneficiaries, including Perth Children’s Hospital, attracted plenty of interest.

Malcolm and Tonya McCusker chipped in $106,000 for an ultrasound machine, while Woodside donated a child counsellor to support children fleeing domestic violence for $125,000.

“It’s a wonderful experience to be surrounded by so many West Australian business leaders who share a passion for improving the community and improving the lives of the young people,” Woodside boss Meg O’Neill said.

BHP, a long-time Million Dollar Partner of Telethon, was represented at the function by Australian president Geraldine Slattery, who donated a $90,000 MRI machine to PCH.

From afar, entrepreneur Laurence Escalante donated $500,000, while Tim Roberts covered the $527,000 cost of a neonatal transport unit.

Other big donors on the day included Matador Capital boss Grant Davey, philanthropists Rod and Carol Jones, Bronte and Colleen Howson of Audi Centre Perth, Victor and Simone Paz, Paul Davies, and Tyson Sutton.

Since 2021, four Leeuwin Lunches have raised more than $18 million for Telethon and donated 342 pieces of medical equipment.

Looking back, Mr Niblett said his family had needed to use more than half of those 342 appliances.

A frenzied 27-round bidding war for a private dining experience with West Coast young gun Harley Reid and former superstar Nic Naitanui went for $110,000.

Mr Davey had a purple patch with winning bids, which included an Audi TT Final Edition for $122,000.

He then donated it back to Telethon for reauction to raise more money.

Human Nature’s Burton crooned throughout, while fellow celebrities — chef Guillaume Brahimi and Seven’s SAS Australia star Ant Middleton mingled among the group.

Middleton, who flew into WA just for the event, said the sense of community Telethon continued to demonstrate in the State was unparalleled, and that spirit of giving started at Leeuwin.

“You need a core community to be really passionate about what they do in order for that to have the ripple effect to go out to the greater community and have WA coming together,” he said.

The love and laughter of the lunch provided the perfect backdrop to the moments that offered a stark reminder of what the crowd was there for.

“Hope, love, gratitude, healing — these are the words I use, and much of that is because of Telethon and the generosity of West Australians,” Mr Niblett said.