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Australia: Meet the 2022 Senior Australian of the Year nominees who are changing the world

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The Senior Australian of the Year 2022 finalists come from a diverse range of backgrounds. (Supplied: AOTY) © Provided by ABC NEWS The Senior Australian of the Year 2022 finalists come from a diverse range of backgrounds. (Supplied: AOTY)

A vision for equality, fairness, respect, honesty, understanding and responsibility could summarise the 2022 Senior Australians of the Year candidates.

But their causes are much broader than that.

The eight candidates, listed here alphabetically, have been champions of diversity and change their entire lives.

But all their inspiration started with one moment in time.

'I'm not marrying her legs'

Robyne's father, Roy Sutton, was asked a very strange question by a man named Ron Burridge.

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Ron asked if he could marry his daughter.

"Dad looked quite horrified," she said.

"Dad was still very, very suspicious of Ron and said, 'But you can go out and get anybody.'

"Ron said, 'The two most important things are: one, Robyne and I really love one another. And secondly, I'm not marrying her legs.'"

They were wed in 1974.

Ms Burridge was 29 and was born with cerebral palsy, affecting both her lower limbs.

She started walking late, aged about seven or eight, and began using a wheelchair about four years ago after getting around on walking sticks most of her life.

Her own experience of being feared and excluded has driven her to force change.

"We have to change people's attitudes, and people with disabilities really are the only ones that can do that," she said.

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"We have to be able to encourage people to tell their story, and show that although their legs might work properly, they will be able to not only live a very happy life themselves, but also contribute to other people's lives."

"My challenge to society is to be inclusive of people with disabilities.

"Don't look at the disability that a person may have. Look at the person. Listen to what the person has to say and the things they want to achieve in life."

'They didn't step forward'

Valmai Dempsey's daughter Michelle was 17 and driving some friends up Black Mountain in Canberra in her mother's car one night in the late 1980s.

"A car came through the lights and collided with her. It rolled the car over and ploughed them into a telegraph pole," Mrs Dempsey said.

"There were other cars at the scene. And my daughter remembers very clearly the people gathered around.

"And the words she relayed to me later were, 'Mum, they didn't step forward because they said they didn't know what to do.'"

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A friend died as a result of the accident. Trained first-aider Michelle was helplessly trapped in the car.

"I wonder now, if anybody had those first-aid competencies that I'm passionate about, I wonder if anybody there would have stepped forward and perhaps made a difference," Mrs Dempsey said.

"Accidents do affect families. It stays with you forever.

"The message of having first aid as part of your life is so important and so terribly valuable, as it can change the outcome for so many different accidents and events."

Mrs Dempsey, of Rivett ACT, wants driving licence holders, especially new drivers, to have first aid training as part of their education.

"You'd already have that first aid competency, and learning first aid and delivering it at that critical time will hold you in good stead and stay with you for your life," the 71-year-old said.

Mrs Dempsey, a mother of two, grandmother of six and great-grandmother-of-one, enrolled as a St John Ambulance cadet volunteer in primary school and is one of the ACT's longest-serving volunteers.

"Aunty Val" is being recognised for her work over many weeks, leading 40 volunteers supporting communities affected by the Black Summer bushfires.

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She has personally kept in touch with almost 200 volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ostracised and alienated

Police officer Colin Dillon was offered $400 a month by a fellow officer in the licensing branch to turn a blind eye.

"I knew there and then that it was totally against what I stood for and what I believed in," he said.

Mr Dillon refused and soon after was transferred out of the branch without explanation.

"They moved me out of there because I obviously didn't fit into the corrupt system that was going on," he said.

"I suppose that was the first real indication that the road ahead was not going to be too easy for me."

Mr Dillon went against the grain and came forward to speak about corruption at the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police activities.

"I was ostracised and alienated within the ranks," he said.

"Nobody wanted to work with me because I blew the whistle on corruption.

"I know the decisions that I've made throughout the course of my career haven't been easy.

"I know that they've been the right decisions. And with me, they rest easy."

Mr Dillon didn't know it at the time, but he was the first Aboriginal person in Australia to become a police officer.

"I knew that I was not wanted there," he said.

This was in 1965, before Aboriginal people were even recognised as citizens.

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His father's friend was the local sergeant and inspired him to sign up.

"He was such a good person, I thought one day I'd like to be like him," he said.

But once inside the force, a colleague officer told him, 'I've heard them in their conversations, saying that there's no place for blacks in the Queensland police force'.

"When I got that message, it was absolutely devastating," he said.

"It was crushing to me and I was awake for hours right through the night just thinking to myself, 'What should I do?'

"I thought, 'Well, I'm not going to be pressured into leaving, not [from] something that I've set my mind on, set my heart to wanting to achieve."

His message to officers was clear.

"I would say to them that, when they take that oath, that they adhere to every word and to serve with great honour and dignity."

Feed the world

It's not known how many lives will be saved by the work of Tasmanian Senior Australian of the Year 2022 Bruce Reginald French from Burnie.

Mr French was a young father on the last day of a nutrition conference in Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s, when he worked as an agricultural officer in Siwai, Bougainville

Delegates were taken to meet the 28 children in Goroka Hospital malnutrition ward.

"I had children myself at that stage, and I burst into tears and walked out," he said.

"I said, 'Why isn't someone doing something to teach people how to feed their children well so that they don't die of malnutrition?'"

The pot-bellied children had stomachs full of starchy staples instead of the protein needed to grow muscles.

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"The plants are all there, but they don't know the food values," Mr French said.

He spent his spare time at the local markets learning as much as he could about local produce.

Another defining moment was in 1972 while speaking to his past students from the PNG University of Conservation and the Natural Environment, where he lectured in food plants.

"They said 'We don't want to learn about Australian plants, we want to learn about local plants,'" he said.

This set up his life's agenda for the next 50 years and counting — to document the food values of every edible plant in the world.

That has led to the Christian not-for-profit organisation Food Plants International.

At time of writing, he has 33,666 documented edible plants from 159 countries.

"Now I've got the biggest information system in the world. Temperate plants in temperate countries, tropical plants in tropical countries," he said.

He has "about a dozen" books to his name on the subject.

But Mr French, 76, is still haunted by the millions of young children who die from malnutrition every year.

'Each of us can help'

Gaye Hamilton had just started her first job in a "very disadvantaged" school in Melbourne's western suburbs.

"Things were tough. The kids were a bit broken," she said.

"The experience I had with those tough kids at that secondary school in the western region of Melbourne has really stuck with me, because it just proves that if you give people a go, you treat them with respect, then they too can be raised up and be their best.

"I've had the opportunity since then, to work with a range of organisations where I felt I could help make a difference to lift these people up. Not a handout, but a hand up. Everyone out there when given an opportunity really can grow and thrive.

Ms Hamilton, 71, is Victoria University's deputy chancellor, Western Bulldogs Community Foundation chairwoman, and board member of Western Chances.

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"Everyone, if given an opportunity, can really develop and grow and be the best that they can be in every postcode in Australia," she said.

"There are pockets of disadvantage. But with small gestures, each of us can help make a difference.

"If we all work together to provide opportunities for everyone in the community to succeed and thrive and be their best, we will have strong resilient communities and be the creative and innovative nation that we all would aspire to."

'People changed around me'

Abla Kadous was in her mid-30s when she made a simple personal decision that would change her life.

"All of a sudden people changed around me," she said.

"I found some discrimination in many areas. I didn't expect people to treat me any differently."

Her decision was to wear a hijab. It was 1984.

"Just to answer some of the beliefs in my religion," she said. "I wanted to practice what I believed."

Mrs Kadous had been in Australia half her life after her family migrated from Egypt in 1968.

"The hijab doesn't change anything in me. It doesn't cover my brain. I am still the same person that they knew before I covered my hair."

Her new purpose was to empower women in similar situations to practice their beliefs and back their decisions.

The mother-of-five quit her paid job in an accounts department and co-founded the Muslim Women's Association. This led her to start the Islamic Woman's Welfare Association in 2000.

"I want Australia to give us a chance as Muslim women, but it's up to the Australian people to respect what we want and to accept us as we are," she said.

"People's external appearances differ. In different in shapes, sizes and colours. We all have one common organ. That's the heart."

Her advice to the community is to respect women who have the confidence to wear a hijab.

"The community needs to respect that and to give them a chance, not to just look at a woman because she wears the hijab. Then you put her aside and you don't give her a chance to give what she wants to give to the community.

The association now has 50 volunteers and staff and runs anti-discrimination forums, school-readiness programs, youth camps, cooking classes, and provides food and other essentials to people in need from its base in Lakemba.

It services reach about 450 people weekly.

Mrs Kadous lives in Strathfield, has 10 grandchildren and vast reserves of energy and purpose.

"I'm 72 and I think that I'm not ready to stop yet."

'You're not naughty'

At the end of one of Mark Le Messurier's counselling sessions, the client — a child from a turbulent background whose behaviour had seen him leave several schools — was walking out the door.

"He suddenly swung around," Mr Le Messurier said.

"He said, 'Hey Mark, am I naughty?'

"I said, 'No, you're not naughty. Why would you think that?'

"[The child said] 'I overheard my reception teacher and my year one teacher talking and they said I was naughty. I've decided I'm not naughty. I've decided I've been battling autism. And it's just taken me such a long, long time to work out the puzzle about how people work.'"

Mr Le Messurier, South Australian Senior Australian of the Year for 2022,  is an educator, counsellor, author, and a coach for parents and teachers.

But that one story has made his career worthwhile.

"For me in a heartbeat that crystallises the work that we do with our youth," the 67-year-old from Rose Park said.

"When we get this right, the transformation within a young person over time is literally boundless."

That child in question turned a corner and started building relationships with teachers and eventually running a school science club.

"Many of my clients battle with disadvantage, trauma and disability," the father-of-two and grandfather-of-three said.

"I've worked with young people who've come from seemingly hopeless positions to running their own businesses to leading successful happy, purposeful lives.

"You get on with what you're doing, you tune into the people that you're working with. You don't look behind you or even in front of you. You just connect to somebody, and you want to make a difference and you keep working it."

'This is unfair'

Janice Standen was working hard, but planning her retirement, when her grandchildren's school called.

Her life changed in an instant.

Her daughter's relationship with her partner "went a bit haywire" and caused her daughter's mental health to suffer.

Three of her grandchildren, aged 9, 13, 16, were suddenly in her care for the foreseeable future at her Heathsridge home in Western Australia.

"There was no way I could leave and not take care of them," she said.

"I just adored them so much that this was how it was going to be."

The mum-of-three and grandmother-of-eight had to give up her job and face her new life as a second-time parent.

Ms Standen went to a meeting of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

"They all share the same common thread," the 73-year-old said.

"They had lost friendships, they had lost relationships, they had lost most of their life by their children not being up to parent and taking on the role themselves as second-time parents."

"It is difficult, but the one thing that is vital is the support from a support network like Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

"All the grandparents had horrific stories; all of the children came to us with so much trauma."

Ms Standen saw a huge hole in service provision.

"It's very difficult to find support for all these things that we need," she said.

"The lack of services, lack of support, and lack of empathy towards grandparent carers, and that has to change. It has to change now.

"We need governments to listen. We need the wider community to take notice. This is unfair. This cannot continue. We need to be recognised."

The WA organisation, of which Ms Standen is president, has about 270 members and 220 grandchildren on its books.

Nominations for Australian of the Year Awards are open year-round.


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