Gianna Donato (pictured), Jill Pope and Steve Watts were recipients of the Westfield Plenty Valley Local Heroes awards, winning $10,000 for the community charity they volunteer with.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

Three City of Whittlesea-based volunteers have been named winners of the Westfield Plenty Valley Local Heroes awards, each receiving $10,000 for their charities.

The winners Gianna Donato from Encompass Care Victoria, Jill Pope from Big Group Hug, and Steve Watts from Parkinson’s Victoria, were chosen by public vote out of six finalists announced in August.

The annual award across all Australian and New Zealand Westfield centres saw a total of $1.26 million in grants to 126 community groups and organisations this year, celebrating individuals whose work has made a positive impact on their community or environment.

Encompass Care Victoria delivers food to vulnerable people throughout the City of Whittlesea and refers those in need of other care to appropriate organisations. The team also makes and provides breakfast for children at three schools in Bundoora and Mernda and runs a weekly community cafe to reduce social isolation.

Ms Donato said she was grateful for the votes she received, saying the money would make an enormous difference to the users of their services, particularly as many felt the ongoing affects of the pandemic.

“I am thrilled for our charity,” she said.

“It is lovely that our team of amazing volunteers have been acknowledged for their love and commitment to their community; I was honoured to represent the team.”

The organisation has seen a significant increase in demand for food and other supplies, as well as mental support, due to COVID-19.

“People who have never required assistance in the past have found themselves needing material aid [and] we have seen a rise in people from CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse] communities requiring assistance,” Ms Donato said.

Encompass Care’s awarded $10,000 will go towards client-centred initiatives including providing food parcels to people who experience food insecurity, breakfast programs, and its secondary college program.

One in seven children goes to school without eating breakfast, according to the organisation, and its breakfast program, supported by Mernda police volunteers, feeds school communities without isolating the children who need assistance.

City of Whittlesea-based charity Big Group Hug, which delivers essential items including prams, nappies and clothing to vulnerable families, will also receive a much-needed $10,000 boost as it reaches its third consecutive record month for requests since it began in 2014.

BGH’s warehouse manager and Doreen resident Jill Pope said the award came at a good time.

“I have to say the timing was wonderful as with the COVID-19 situation presently our team was very excited, and it uplifted them massively for us to be recognised for the work we do,” Ms Pope said.

“BGH is receiving so many requests for struggling families with COVID and in isolation – these are in addition to regular requests. These families need nappies, wipes, formula, toiletries and toy packs for the children so the $10,000 will be used very wisely.”

The third recipient of the award was 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.

Mr Watts was diagnosed with the disease in 2017 and has since created innovative ways to help the non-profit provide peer support, health advice and research funding.

The Westfield Local Heroes Program is now in its fourth year, and has contributed $4.8 million in grants to more than 485 groups and organisations.

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