Rennie Zerafa: the CEO whose idea kick-started one of Malta’s most treasured support groups, Puttinu Cares
Puttinu Cares is one of Malta’s biggest voluntary organisations, offering support to the families of children suffering from cancer, so that they get the care and backing they require to receive treatment.
However, while the organisation now sees around 60 to 90 patients travelling to the UK per month to receive treatment from over 30 different hospitals, its origins all stem from an idea Rennie Zerafa had while working as a nurse at St Luke’s Hospital, together with the late Victor Calvagna, a well-known and beloved Oncologist specialising in paediatric cancer. Dr Calvagna tragically lost his life in January 2022 when he was hit by a car in an accident that shook the country.
Speaking to MaltaCEOs.mt, Mr Zerafa, now CEO at Puttinu Cares, recalled how the idea came about, together with the determination required to turn a dream to reality.
“When I was a nurse at St Luke’s Hospital, I happened to be working in a hall dedicated to kids with cancer. I played a lot of football with Dr Calvagna, who never liked losing games, and we spoke often,” he said.
“From then on, Dr Calvagna became a Consultant, the first Oncology Consultant in Malta. He opened the first ward dedicated to children with cancer, and took me there with him. There, I started organising things to make the area nicer for the children,” Mr Zerafa explained.
He recalled that one day, there was a father and a son that both had a brain tumour, sitting in the dark ward. “I told myself that I will change it for the better, and so I did, turning it into a more colourful area,” he said.
Puttinu Cares, the children’s cancer support group was set up in 2001 soon after the opening of the specialised Paediatric Oncology Unit in Hospital, now known as Rainbow Ward. Sprucing up the ward would turn out to be the first project undertaken by the organisation.
Afterwards, Dr Calvagna called Mr Zerafa into his office in October 2002, and they talked about what is needed to liven the ward up further and create a better experience for the children facing such difficult situations. As a result, they started organising Christmas and birthday parties, together with bringing televisions and other devices to the ward to improve the atmosphere.
A short time after, Angele Cuschieri came in as a nurse, and Mr Zerafa remarked that today, as President of the organisation, she is “integral”, noting that she “sends around 40,000 emails per year” and is constantly working. “Once she started helping out, we started being more efficient,” he said.
As Dr Calvagna continued his work in the area, Mr Zerafa and Ms Cuschieri shifted their focus on Puttinu Cares, renting the organisation’s first apartments in Sutton, UK, where three families went to live. “Then, we noticed that we are going to need funds, and so we thought of the Football Marathon. From the first marathon we generated around 4,000 Maltese Liri (€9,317), yet the event continued to grow and the figure now surpasses the millions,” he said.
Following that, Puttinu Cares bought its first apartment in Sutton, called Martin Court, and there, Mr Zerafa and Ms Cuschieri continued to grow the organisation’s name even in the UK. Both teens and adults started approaching Puttinu Cares for help.
“Ms Cuschieri and I then spent six years searching for another centre in London, as property prices there are very high, and you need to find a place that is adequate for patients. After a series of fundraising events, we managed to raise the money for the permits required,” Mr Zerafa said.
“People will trust you with their money, but you have to make them proud of what they gave you,” he noted.
Puttinu Cares has since requested another floor in the London centre and Mr Zerafa remarked that it is “very close” to being acquired. Once the process is done, the organisation will be able to create 27 studio flats from it.
He said that without volunteers, Puttinu Cares “wouldn’t have been anything”. “If you want to do something, you have to be diligent and hardworking, always giving it your all,” the CEO continued.
“The biggest reward that you can get from voluntary work is peace, and meeting others with a big heart,” Mr Zerafa said, before noting that the Maltese population still cares about people’s wellbeing.
“When you have a person, especially when they are in a difficult situation, more often than not they will pay you back with help. When they see that you are helping them, they often pour their heart into it,” he explained.
“Puttinu Cares is made up of everyone that has given us the support needed to help those that are struggling,” Mr Zerafa affirmed.
Puttinu Cares CEO Rennie Zerafa / Puttinu Cares
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