Despite significant challenges and hardship in their lives, Italian-born Giovanna Cecconi and her friend Brian Merrick work tirelessly to raise money for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre (ONJ Centre) through Giovanna’s bric-a-brac market stall at Bulleen Plaza.
“It was … love at first sight. I was 18 years old, he was 13 years older than me,” explains Giovanna, describing the moment she met her future husband, Enzo, when he visited Italy from his native Australia in 1967. Two years later, they married, and Giovanna arrived in Australia: 20 years old, unable to speak English, and already missing the family she had left behind in Italy.
As the years went on, Giovanna learned to speak English, she and Enzo had three children, and life was good. Sadly, Enzo was diagnosed with lung cancer and died of a subsequent heart attack. Giovanna was just 36 years old.
“If you know my story, you’ll cry in front of me,” she says in her charming accent. “I worked to clean toilets in Bourke Street for $5 an hour to survive and feed my children. It was not … degrading, because it was something I was very proud of.”
Her work ethic and pride in what she does is what stands out about Giovanna, and is key to her success as a supporter of the ONJ Centre. Her infectious and sparkling energy inspires her friend Brian to help her, and together they gather trash and treasure from all over Melbourne, store it in Giovanna’s full to overflowing garage, for Giovanna to sell at her market stall at Bulleen Plaza for three days each month.
Brian, from Berwick, is a patient at the ONJ Centre, having been diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a form of blood cancer, in 2011. Since then, he has come to the ONJ Centre for treatment every five weeks.
“When I walk in to Day Oncology, I always say ‘It’s Merrick from Berwick reporting for duty!’” says Brian, a father of three adult children and nine grandchildren.
He met Giovanna after losing his wife Patricia to cancer, a few years after Giovanna’s husband Enzo died. Together, they have a friendship marked by loyalty, companionship and a desire to help others. Soon after his diagnosis, Brian was put on a clinical trial which his cancer responded to.
“From that point on,” says Brian, “Giovanna said ‘Look, we’ve both lost our partners. You’ve got this blood cancer, the treatment is working, we should do some fundraising to stop the spread of cancer, of any type.’”
Starting out small in 2013 with a sausage sizzle at Bulleen Plaza shopping centre, they soon moved into collecting and selling bric-a-brac. Brian drives all over the place, collecting dinner plates, glassware, crockery, pots and pans, jewellery, clothing, hats, shoes…just to name a few. He delivers it to Joanna’s garage where they store the items until market stall day.
“My son Robert was shocked when he saw the garage,” says Giovanna. “I said ‘no Robert, it’s OK, people donate these things and I sell them to raise money!’”
“Beautiful things people give to me, they think it’s rubbish or junk, you know, but other people are happy to buy it, especially when I say ‘would you like to buy something to help the ONJ Centre?’”
Over five years, they have donated nearly $20,000, including a bumper year in 2018 with a total of $10,500. This money will go towards new equipment for the new Gym and Exercise program specifically for people going though cancer treatment.
“I chose my life, my life is here. I know I’m on my own, but I’ve got three beautiful children who love me, I have five grandchildren, and I have my friend Brian. I’m very proud of what I do. I don’t want thanks. I just want others to do the same and help.” - Giovanna Cecconi
“Giovanna is just fantastic,” says Brian. “She’s got a happy outlook on everything and she is always helping. She’s a great carer.”
Giovanna next holds her Bric-a-Brac stall on Thursday 28 February - Saturday 2 March at Bulleen Plaza Shopping Centre, 79-109 Manningham Rd. Contact Bulleen Plaza for more information on 9852 0011.