By Gav Ross
WONTHAGGI superwoman Debbie Rielly isn’t often lost for words.
But when she rolled up into her driveway last Thursday after a two-week retreat in Peru, the inspirational cancer sufferer was left gobsmacked.
Led into her modest brick veneer home by her twin teenage sons, Ben and Dylan, several other family members and close friends, Deb was treated to an indescribable display of just how much her loved ones, and the wider community, care for her.
Mere hours after Deb’s plane left the tarmac several weeks ago, friends and family coordinated one of the biggest working bees Wonthaggi has ever seen.
Their goal was simple – to give Deb’s home, her temple, the ultimate makeover; one which would hopefully help to put the paramedic’s mind at ease as she continues the fight of her life.
While a half dozen helpers could certainly have done a lot in 14 days, including a slap of paint, cleaning and maybe some new carpet and fixtures, Deb’s family, much like the woman herself, don’t do anything by halves.
In scenes resembling the set of a TV renovation program, dozens of tradesmen – all of whom know Deb personally or have been touched by her plight – swarmed to her home.
One of Deb’s closest friends, Stuart Yates, said it was difficult to count exactly how many souls passed through the house.
“There had to have been about 30 people a day coming in and doing something,” he said.
“On weekends it was incredible – there would have been more than 50 workers at one time.”
No room of Deb’s house, or corner of her backyard, went untouched.
Stuart, who was unofficially dubbed the coordinator of ‘Operation Deb’, said the renovation project started small and expanded to something extraordinary within a few days once local businesses and tradies got involved.
“We started by calling just a few businesses and word got out to the whole community,” Stuart said.
Suddenly, people were calling Deb’s family out of nowhere, asking how they could assist.
“You mention Deb’s name and people say ‘what can I do?’” Stuart continued.
“It’s been incredibly moving, actually.
“People don’t realise what ‘community spirit’ actually means until something like this happens.”
Plumbers, electricians, concreters, painters, carpenters, arborists…you name it – all spent hours, often outside of normal business hours, to help with the revamp at absolutely no cost.
“What makes it more amazing is that these guys are flat out, too,” Stuart added.
“It’s not like they’ve got no other work.
“They were here on weekends and weeknights doing what they could, all for Deb.”
Some tireless labourers, such as Deb’s brother, Paul Slavin, literally spent every waking hour at the property, toiling from dawn through to midnight, every night.
Although the task was daunting, to say the least, helpers say they never felt pressured or stressed to finish everything on time as long as they kept Deb in their thoughts.
In the end, they got there, with just hours to spare after a clean-up.
The result is mind-boggling.
And this is not just because the renovation of the four-bedroom home is stylish and attractive, it’s because of the time-frame involved.
A similar renovation would take even the most well organised home owners months, and that’s with tradespeople arriving and completing their work on time.
Speaking a few days before Deb arrived home, Stuart said he hoped the project would help his best friend realise how much support she has on her journey to recovery.
“She has endless love and support to help her through this,” he said.
“In a way, (this project) has shown she’s almost getting back all the love she gives to others.
“People have recognised the contributions she has made to her community over the years and wanted to return the favour.”
The big reveal
Before being blindsided by seeing the transformation of her home for the first time, Deb recalled talking idly about her plans during the car ride home from the airport with another of her siblings, Gavin Slavin.
“We were driving back and I was telling Gav that I really need to do some work around the house,” she explained.
“I told him one of the first things I’d do was get my swim-spa working because it was such a waste having it sit there unused.”
Her brother gave nothing way, nodding and giving some vague advice.
“He told me I should probably spend a bit of money on the place and then sell it,” Deb laughed.
“I said ‘No, I love my house and I love my neighbours. I’m staying’.”
After picking her boys up from school on the way home, Deb said she was momentarily confused when entering her driveway.
“I said something like ‘oh my god, where’s my garden gone?’ and everyone in the car started laughing.”
Stumbling from the vehicle in shock, Deb stood bewildered as she stared at garden beds full of new plants, including a boulevard of young citrus trees lining one side of her driveway.
“Then I said ‘Wow, you cleaned the front porch’, or something like that, before they took me in.”
She took one step inside the front door and the smell of fresh paint and brand new carpets filled her nostrils.
Then she saw the kitchen.
“I won’t tell you what I said because you wouldn’t be able to print it,” she laughed again.
The entire kitchen had been gutted from floor to roof and replaced with new cabinets, benches, appliances – the works.
“I nearly fell over,” she said.
“I was just completely gobsmacked.
“It was at that moment that I felt this almighty feeling of love…really realising how my friends and family got stuck into the place.”
Amid tears and hugs-a-plenty, the surprises didn’t stop.
“My boys kept saying to me ‘Mum, that’s not all’, that’s not it’.”
All four bedrooms had been completely revitalised.
“I couldn’t believe how pretty my room looked,” Deb continued.
“And everything was so organised; someone even colour-coordinated my wardrobe!”
It wasn’t just the interior of her bedroom that was different – her window had been turned into a sliding door, leading out onto a glorious little patio where Deb can enjoy a quiet tea each morning.
“That was one of the best parts, just unbelievable,” she said of the new decking.
“And the rest of it… my god!”
Her one-acre block had been freshly mowed and branches on bordering cypress trees had been cut back – a mammoth task in itself.
Deb’s sheds had been cleaned out and individual spaces towards the back of her home were devoted to her passions – painting, music, riding and surfing.
Her long-neglected swim-spa received a new pump and worn decking outside her back door had been replaced with concrete.
The list of improvements was endless, and Deb says she’s eternally grateful to every person who pitched in.
“I didn’t just think ‘wow, this is a new house’, I was more amazed by how much love I could feel just walking through the place,” she said.
“From the front to the back, everything everyone did is awesome.
“Words can’t describe how I feel; words can’t describe how much thanks I want to give.
“This just inspires me so much.”
The road ahead
First diagnosed with breast cancer last decade, which she subsequently beat, Deb continues to face an uphill battle fighting secondary spinal cancer.
Early this week, she returned to Box Hill Hospital for another scan – one she hopes will bring good news.
Her last scan, taken three months ago, had shown cancerous nodes had grown in close proximity to her heart and oesophagus.
Another dose of chemotherapy was followed up by her trip to the Amazon – an experience she says has left her feeling remarkable.
“I’m full of energy,” she said with enthusiasm last Friday.
“I stayed in a lodge deep in the jungle, speaking with a traditional shaman and people of the Amazon.
“I learned their culture, trekked through the jungle.
“There was meditation and yoga, but also a fair bit of physical exercise.
“I feel reinvigorated, fit and healthy.”
Her friend, Stuart, sums up the situation perfectly.
“For Debbie, cancer is an inconvenience,” he said.
“She still surfs three times a week, still goes to the gym, still works as a paramedic.
“Her life goes on with as much energy and enthusiasm as ever.”
Deb looks forward to thanking each and every person involved in her astounding home makeover when she throws a barbecue this weekend.