No-one was more surprised than me when Malcolm Turnbull announced, on Australia Day this year, that I was the 2016 Australian of the Year Local Hero. There are some unflattering photographs of me at that moment – think stunned mullet - that prove this.
The reason I was so surprised is that I was sharing the stage with such incredible people: the Local Heroes from each Australian state and territory, who had created cafes to train and employ homeless people, saved lives with the Flying Doctors, and worked for 30 years to negotiate the return of nearly a million hectares of land to the traditional owners.
All these people deserved to be the national recipient of this award and so much more. Meeting them ranks as a highlight in a year that has been personally thrilling, but more importantly a huge help for the organisation I run.
I’m the co-founder, with Tim Dick, of the Sydney Story Factory, a not-for-profit creative writing centre for young people in Redfern, Sydney. We run free writing and storytelling workshops on everything from poetry to ghost stories and animations. Our aim is to give marginalised young people the skills and confidence to tell the stories that matter to them.
We’ve been open less than four years, and we’re still tiny: we have the equivalent of five full-time staff (though we’ve also trained more than 1400 volunteers, 600 of whom are active). We have no marketing budget, and we have to raise every dollar we spend. Being on national TV on the awards night, and having the media coverage that’s followed, has been a huge boon for us.
The effect of the award on the Sydney Story Factory has been tremendous.
We have had a spike in the number of volunteers signing up, and an influx of donations.- Catherine Keenan
The day after Australia Day, a hugely generous woman in Western Australia called up to say she’d seen me on the telly and would like to make a donation of $30,000, a very significant amount to us.
The previous holder of this role, Juliette Wright, said getting the Local Hero award was like rocket fuel for her organisation, GIVIT, and I concur. Doors have opened that were previously closed and we’re growing faster than ever before. My hope is that, because of this award, we’ll be able to work with thousands more young people in coming years, and change their lives for the better.
I was nominated for Australian of the Year by my sister, Jen Keenan. She told me she was going to do it and I thought it was very kind of her, but ultimately pointless. Without wanting to seem ungrateful, I gently tried to stop her wasting her time. She didn’t listen.
One of the best and most humbling things about this year is that it’s given me a deeper sense of just how many people there are, all over Australia, working to improve the lives of others. They do it in all sorts of fields, from medicine to sport to the arts.
They usually do it quietly. If you were to suggest to them that they might become a Local Hero, they would no doubt laugh. They might pull a face like my stunned-mullet one.
These are exactly the people you should nominate for Australian of the Year. The people who would never dream they deserve it. The people who work for others not because they seek recognition, but because they’re compelled to help.
You all know at least one person like that. You might know five or six. Nominate them all. Even if it makes them feel a little queasy, do it because it will allow them to help even more people than they do now.
And that, in the end, is what it’s all about.
Nominations for the 2017 Australian of the Year Awards are open until midnight, August 7, 2016.
Nominations can be made online here.
If you do not have access to the internet, you can call the National Australia Day Council on 02 6120 0600 for assistance to submit a nomination.
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