A life lived well – Cerebral Palsy Alliance remembers Laurel Bennett

A life lived well – Cerebral Palsy Alliance remembers Laurel Bennett
Posted on Thu 14 Jul 2022

Laurel Bennett became widely known and loved for her appearance on the TV show ‘The Dog House’ – but she’d been a huge part of everyday life at Cerebral Palsy Alliance for decades. CPA pays tribute to a much-loved member of our community, client and friends, who recently passed away at the age of 77.

 

Born in May 1945 with cerebral palsy and spina bifida at a time when treatment for a complex physical disability was almost non-existent, Laurel Bennett had to overcome a society that was not built to be inclusive of her. But her stubbornness, quick wit and intelligence shone through and, when she passed away earlier this year at the age of 77, she had lived a full and fantastic life.

Coincidentally, Cerebral Palsy Alliance (then known as the Spastic Centre) was also born in 1945, and Laurel was one of the first clients through the door. As a toddler in the late 1940’s, she began accessing therapy services and attending school at CPA’s first Mosman site, starting a life-long association with CPA.

A clever and driven young woman, Laurel began working for Centre Industries, the very first training and employment centre for people with cerebral palsy, as an 18-year-old in 1963. As a secretary at Centre Industries for roughly a decade, Laurel was a well-known fixture in Sydney’s cerebral palsy community.

At the age of 30, Laurel became close with Darrell Bennett, the son of apple farmers from the Blue Mountains, who like her was among the first residents at Venee Burges House when CPA opened the pioneering independent living accommodation at Allambie Heights in 1974. Laurel offered to assist in caring for Darrell after he injured his finger, beginning a love story that would last a lifetime.

Writing in his autobiography, ‘My Struggle, My Life’ Darrell says the couple enjoyed many shared interests, including playing scrabble, arts and crafts, and many excursions. Laurel “can draw and paint very well. She writes wonderful close-to-the-heart poetry [and] she is a self-taught computer whizz… our love grew and grew,” says Darrell.

Left: Laurel and Darrell on their wedding day / Right: Laurel and Darrell on location for The Dog House

After tying the knot in 1984 the couple travelled extensively over the next two decades, visiting the United States, Alice Springs and Western Australia. Laurel and her husband lived life by a simple motto, ‘never give up!’. Their long involvement with CPA included working with our Training Alliance to welcome new CPA staff and advising on disability awareness and inclusion programs.

The last chapter of Laurel’s life began in 2020, when the residents of Venee Burges made the move into a series of smaller, purpose-built houses. Laurel and Darrell were thrilled with their new home, a state-of-the-art villa they could call their own in Cromer, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. A straight talker with a dry sense of humour, she was popular with her neighbours and CPA staff.

This move was also significant for another reason – the layout of the house had been specifically designed to enable Laurel and Darrell to bring a furry friend home. Alongside Darrell, dogs were the great love of Laurel’s life, and as she often did, Laurel took matters into her own hands by applying to appear on Channel 10’s TV program, ‘The Doghouse’.

With the support of CPA house manager Linda Wilson, Laurel and Darrell visited the Dog House adoption facility and were matched with a gentle yellow Labrador called Chai. The TV program was watched by more than 500,000 people and Laurel and Darrell’s story captured hearts and minds across Australia, with the segment watched thousands more times on social media.

Click here to see the moment Laurel and Darrell met Chai on The Dog House.

Laurel, Darrell and Chai at their home with The Dog House film crew

The months living with Chai and Darrell at Cromer were some of the happiest of Laurel’s life. Chai settled into the rhythm of daily life in the house brilliantly and brought so much joy to Laurel, who always had a sneaky treat ready for him in her wheelchair bag. Laurel was also grateful for the TV appearance for providing a platform to educate more people about cerebral palsy, a lifelong passion of hers.

An accomplished writer and an active participant in her local community, church group and more, Laurel achieved a long-term goal earlier this year in becoming a certified Justice of the Peace. She was also a talented artist who spent many happy days drawing and painting, and she kindly donated her artistic supplies to CPA’s Lifestyles program so they will continue to bring people joy in the future. 

Laurel is survived by her husband Darrell and many friends and extended family. At CPA, we were lucky to have known and cared for this brave, inspiring and determined woman, who gave so much to the people around her.

Rest in peace Laurel (4.3.1945 – 5.5.2022)

I’m Marie. I wear many hats; as a student in my first year at Western Sydney University studying communications, and I work as a Disability Support Practitioner for Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

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