By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
City of Whittlesea community volunteers have been recognised as finalists in the 2021 Westfield Local Heroes awards.
The awards span Australia and New Zealand, with nominations open to people affiliated with organisations that give back to their communities.
Nominations are assessed against criteria for each Westfield to select the six finalists per centre. The top three from each centre, 126 in total, will receive $10,000 towards their organisation.
Public voting is now open to decide the three winners at Westfield Plenty Valley.
Among the finalists is Doreen resident Jill Pope, who volunteers more than 40 hours each week at Big Group Hug, a City of Whittlesea-based charity that delivers essential items including prams, nappies and clothing to vulnerable families. It has supported more than 11,000 families Victoria-wide since it began in 2014.
Ms Pope said when she heard about her nomination, she felt uncomfortable as she considered herself a part of a wonderful team, rather than an individual ‘hero’.
“It actually feels surreal as you do what you do to help others not thinking that it is anything out of the ordinary,” she told the Review.
“I am in awe of what [other] people and organisations are doing in the community. The City of Whittlesea community has especially impressed me through COVID with how people are caring for people.”
If successful, the $10,000 will go towards a project to automate big Group Hug’s online support-request system. The group fields requests from both families and agencies, and a new online system would help reach more people.
“The request system that Big Group Hug uses for the caseworkers is very labour intensive and it would be wonderful to have funds to update the system to be more automated,” Ms Pope said.
“Our requests from agencies has grown massively since COVID began and is increasing every month, so the $10,000 would make a huge difference.”
Another finalist is Sikh Community Connections president Gurinder Kaur, whose group has delivered groceries and meals to more than 3500 Whittlesea families during the pandemic.
“Being a woman from the CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse] community as well as someone who wears a turban, I feel truly honoured to be recognised,” Ms Kaur said.
“However I believe this recognition goes to the entire team of Sikh Community Connections and all the wonderful volunteers behind the scenes.”
Ms Kaur said her fellow finalists reflected the municipality’s many committed advocates and volunteers.
“Truly speaking, there have been many opportunities where we have even worked collaboratively with each other and planned some future programs to work towards common community goals. This gives me a personal sense of feeling proud to be working with such committed community leaders and keeps me motivated,” she said.
The $10,000 would fund a much-awaited leadership program for CALD women within Sikh Community Connections. It would help them access support services in the area, and promote social connections within these communities.
Ian Landy, president of Northern Pride Netball Association in Mernda, is also a finalist, recognised for his work encouraging hundreds of children to play netball.
He started the association in 2019 to bring competition games to the area and broaden opportunities to play. The association now has 400 young members who play each Saturday.
“The whole reason for initiating the association in Mernda was to give a local opportunity rather than travel,” Mr Landy said.
“Mernda didn’t have a netball club before Northern Pride.
“Our aim is to ultimately have about eight clubs in the area. The $10,000 would be invested into that, so looking to support the creation of and ignition of new clubs in the area, especially in the estate areas including Wollert and Donnybrook.”
He said a stellar cohort of award finalists highlighted the strong spirit of altruism within the municipality.
“There’s a large number of people that are involved in voluntary contributions to the community and I think each and every one of us has a consistent aim to make the community of Whittlesea be the best that it can be,” he said.
Other finalists for the award are Gianna Donato of Encompass Care Victoria, which delivers food to schools in Bundoora and Mernda; Julie Malherbe who rescues joeys, wombats and bats at her wildlife shelter, the Joey and Bat Sanctuary in Beveridge; and Fire Rescue Victoria Commander Steve Watts of Bundoora, who has spent the past four years campaigning to raise awareness and money for Parkinson’s Victoria.
People can cast a vote by visiting www.westfield.com.au/plentyvalley. Voting closes on August 30.