Keeping safe

Kate Fitzsimons lost her sister Nicole, pictured, in a motorbike accident in Thailand. Now she gives a powerful message to senior students: keep safe on schoolies, writes Shane Green.

In the awful, dark days after her big sister Nicole was killed in a motorbike accident in Thailand, Kate Fitzsimons kept a journal.

She would write to Nicole, expressing her feelings and thoughts, placing the journal in her sister’s coffin when she said goodbye.

Kate kept a copy, and reading back over it, it was clear she wanted to do something to honour her sister, who died in 2012, aged only 24.

‘I think it’s because Nicole herself was so resilient and positive and I couldn’t let her down by not trying to take on the same sort of fearless attitude,’ says Kate.

Kate started looking at how many other families had suffered such a devastating loss. She discovered that on average, an Australian tourist dies in Thailand every three days, in Bali every four.

‘It was happening far too often and I knew that Nicole’s story was so compelling because she was so beautiful and had everything to live for and wasn’t a crazy risk-taker,’ says Kate. ‘And yet she did succumb to this mentality that when you’re over in these countries “oh, it’s alright, it won’t happen to me”.

‘You never think you’re going to be that family on the news that things like this happen to.’

Kate, then 20, was determined to get the message across, deciding to target one of our most vulnerable groups – senior students preparing to head off on schoolies.

It’s a time in your life, says Kate, where you feel invincible: finishing school, a sense of independence, holidays on your own. Her message is for them to stay safe: their actions have consequences, not just for them but for those who care about them.

She gave up her corporate career and, as she puts it, became a woman on a mission, working through the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation, established by the Fitzsimons family.  Four years later, Kate has given her powerful presentation to more than 30,000 students at schools in every Australian state, and in New Zealand.

The presentation includes moving video footage, and Kate telling the story of Nicole, a young woman who was pursuing her passion for rugby league, working on The Footy Show in Sydney. (You can see videos about Kate’s work here.)

A holiday in Koh Samui with her boyfriend was a well-earned break. But she succumbed to the thinking of so many other young travellers abroad: the idea that they are somehow bullet-proof.

Riding on the back of a motorbike without a helmet – something she would never do in Australia – she and her boyfriend were hit by another bike as they turned into their hotel.

The sessions Kate runs are emotional. As Kate says, she opens up. ‘I really try to talk peer-to-peer, heart-to-heart,’ she says. ‘I’m not there to lecture.’

At the end of sessions, she has had 17-year-old boys in tears, thanking her.

‘My sister doesn’t get a second chance, but I realise that everyone who hears her story does,’ says Kate, ‘to think twice and to care about your life just as much, wherever you are in the world.’

Kate has worked hard to get her message into schools. Her first session was at Sydney’s Campbelltown Performing Arts High School, filling in for a speaker who had dropped out. Last week, hundreds of schools later, she returned to Campbelltown.

She is also receiving wider recognition and support. Understand Insurance, an education and awareness campaign of the Insurance Council of Australia, is a backer.

Her initial motivation was that if she got through to one student, it would be worth it, but it is certain her impact has been much more profound. She has had emails from students on their trips, telling her how they had helped out a friend.

‘It’s helped me heal a lot,’ says Kate. ‘They are my inspiration to keep going.’

You can learn more about Kate and the foundation and how to book a presentation.

Editor’s Note: Kate Fitzsimons has been named in Westpac’s Top 100 Women of Influence in the Young Leader category for 2016. Congratulations, Kate.