How charity begins at home for local charity heroes GeeWizz
Gina Long’s mother always told her: “Think big, think bigger ... and then some.
It was a mantra she took to heart working her way from selling ads for Radio Orwell in Ipswich to global entrepreneur.
But alongside business success was another mission in life. She has been a voluntary fund raiser for more than 40 years.
Since her first sponsored swim aged 13 she has raised more than £4 million. In 2015 she was awarded an MBE for services to charity.
But three years ago she decided to bring her fundraising closer to home.
Supported by husband Andrew she started her own charity which has already been a lifeline to scores of families in Suffolk and Norfolk.
GeeWizz helps children and young adults who have disabilities and life-threatening conditions, or are affected directly or indirectly by cancer. It also funds research into cancer.
Her priority was to keep it local and show supporters exactly where their money was going.
Donors, and those it helps, become part of the GeeWizz family and all meet up at an annual tea party.
So far projects include buying wheelchairs, funding treatments, and masterminding a community effort to adapt the home of a teenager whose illness causes multiple fits every day.
But the GeeWizz team will also move heaven and earth to make a youngster’s dreams come true.
Six year-old George Woodward, who has spinal muscular atrophy, not only received a £25,000 bespoke electric wheelchair but also met his hero, Moto GP world champion Valentino Rossi.
Gina set up the charity after her daughter, Alexandra, was treated for sarcoma cancer.
“Having seen my daughter go through cancer treatments it was important to raise money to fund more research,” said Gina.
“Starting my own charity was fulfilling a lifetime dream. I wanted to help children and young adults specifically.
“The driver was number one my daughter, and two the way I felt about how the charity sector had changed over many years.
“At GeeWizz we do everything in our power to show people where, how and why their money is being spent.
“Our ethos is accountability and transparency - I also campaign for that throughout the charity sector.”
So far this year 25 families have been helped - among them Sally Morton and her six year-old daughter Jasmine Moxom.
GeeWizz is paying for Jasmine, who has spastic cerebral palsy, to have vital physiotherapy to help her to walk.
And its work for the family is a perfect example of how a small and local charity can step in fast with urgent help.
When Gina visited last winter she found the house was cold because Sally’s conscience would not let her use money she had raised for Jasmine’s treatment to pay for heating oil.
“When I left at 9pm I just sat in my car crying ... I felt so grateful that I knew GeeWizz could help them,” said Gina.
“We called Goff Heating Oil and said we would pay to fill their tank. The oil was delivered next day.”
GeeWizz is also planning its second DIY SOS-style project to make much-needed changes to the family’s home in Beck Row.
Another beneficiary is Kim Sale whose right leg was amputated above the knee after she developed sarcoma aged 14.
Kim aims to be a Paralympic athlete and GeeWizz is funding physio and specialist training to help her achieve her dream of competing in Tokyo in 2020.
Kieran Horgan from Bury, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, had not had physiotherapy for three years until the charity began to pay for regular sessions.
It has also raised money for a sensory ‘magic carpet’ at Riverwalk special school in Bury St Edmunds.
But those are just a small sample of its work to which projects are added all the time.
“We are looking for more families to support,” said Gina. We want people to call us and ask for help.
“We have to make informed decisions about who we help, and don’t fund anything the NHS would fund,” she added.
“Every penny we spend is carefully spent,” says Gina. “But it’s not just about the money, it involves campaigning and support as well.”
GeeWizz also places huge value on the numerous business sponsors and individuals who support it with donations and services.
Gina and Andrew’s family - her children Samuel and Alexandra, and his children James, Charles, Georgina, Thomas and Olivia - are all keen supporters of the charity.
Her mother Margaret, from whom she says she inherits her boundless energy, is - like Gina and Andrew - a trustee.
“Andrew is my rock and my foundation,” says Gina. “We work from our farm office, and now, as GeeWizz and our business grow we are having to build an extension.
“My children inspire me every single day. You never think they take much notice of you, but then they grow up to be people who give back ... wanting to make a difference.
“The charity is called GeeWizz because that’s what my children call me - they say I whizz around everywhere.”
Gina’s career in media and communications soared to success in the USA then back home in the UK.
The tireless work ethic that fired her in business also pushes her to strive ever-harder for the charities she supports.
She volunteered for The Prince’s Trust for 12 years, and in 1999, with a group of friends, founded Breakthrough Suffolk for breast cancer sufferers, which has raised more than £1 million.
In 2012 she set up the Ultimate Charity Auction which has netted over £1million for national and local causes. The annual online sale grew from an earlier event in memory of football legend Sir Bobby Robson who was a great friend.
She and Andrew also created Classic and Sports Cars by the Lake which now takes place because of a hard-working committee, and has raised £290,000 for St Nicholas Hospice Care.
Gina’s ‘little black book’ of contacts built up over 40 years is a vital part of her armoury.
She says saying thank you, having lots of energy, contacts, and experience are among the essentials to succeed in charity work.
“You need persistence, passion, and perseverance. There are no shortcuts to success in business or charity or life.”
GeeWizz is run day to day by Crystal Barber and Daisy French - a small but very dedicated team.
Office manager Daisy said: “Meeting people whose lives you can affect inspires me to go out and work harder. I could never give back what we receive from seeing our
families life-changingly happy.”
Businessman Mark Gaywood was appointed GeeWizz chair earlier this year. “I was touched by the difference the charity makes to changing and improving the lives of children and young adults,” he said.
“This is what drives us and is at the heart of our focus, and it is so rewarding to see the physical difference it makes to local families.”
Gina, who has just received an honorary doctorate from the University of Suffolk, is also patron of Bury Women’s Aid Centre and an ambassador for West Suffolk College and West Suffolk Hospital.
“I truly think I have the best job in the world. From running GeeWizz to mentoring and helping other charities, it’s simply the best,” she says.