When we asked Maria why she decided to join the SSI Volunteer Program in Armidale her response was simple, “I’m someone who sees the needs, and does something about it.”
For 30 years Maria has maintained a steadfast commitment to her passion for the Australian environment and the people in it. As a retired teacher, author and campaigner, she has embedded herself in solving community issues while building a national profile as an environmentalist, for which she has received the Order of Australia Medal.
“Thirty years ago I started campaigning to have our national floral emblem gazetted – it was only assumed this had been done, but the first steps had only been taken in 1913 and the outbreak of the war prevented it from being completed,” noted Maria.
Maria came to be known affectionately as ‘The Wattle Lady’ and was instrumental in the revival of National Wattle Day held on September 1 each year in Australia.
Prior to registering and training as volunteer with SSI Maria also started the group ‘Save Our Flora’ in 2013, to address the threat to native Australian plants all over the country.
“I brought together a group from all over Australia, linking professionals with amateurs and enthusiasts who had a passion for saving our endangered native plants,” said Maria.
Despite Maria’s many hobbies and commitments to other projects, as well as regularly supporting the newly arrived families through volunteering at SSI, ‘Save Our Flora’ continues to remain an active and independent, national project under her guidance.
One of the first needs Maria noticed after registering as a volunteer for SSI was for toys to keep children occupied and engaged in the SSI Armidale office.
“We created a creche for the children of parents who were attending meetings and classes through SSI, and I quickly noticed the toys were being brought in by my fellow volunteers and then packed up and taken back home after each session,” said Maria.
Maria and three of her fellow volunteers quickly spoke to SSI staff and began leading a hugely successful toy drive, which has seen hundreds of new and pre-loved toys donated by businesses and members of the Armidale community, being distributed to the new families by SSI.
“Many of the toys donated have been brand new, meaning people went out and bought high quality toys specifically to support our newly arrived families,” noted Maria.
Aside from the adult lessons creche and the toy drive, Maria’s regular responsibilities to support her assigned family include driving the mother on the school pickup run to get the kids, and facilitating the use of the homework centre to support the children’s learning
In supporting the newcomers Maria often reflects on her own family’s refugee experience to guide her.
“As a former refugee myself I understand what these people are going through, being put in a country where the language is not understood and the protocols and politeness are hard to comprehend, and especially how hard it can be to navigate the bureaucracy for basic services, they’re fortunate to have organisations like SSI to help them smooth out the process,” said Maria
“Looking back at the many difficulties my family faced due to the lack of services and harsh conditions for working men, it’s clear to see we’ve come a long way, but many of the challenges are still there.”
Looking to the future Maria shares her hopes and expectations for the family she works with.
“My hope is that they’ll find a nice place to live, that their father will find a satisfying job and that the kids will go on to complete their high school education. They all have the opportunity to make a huge contribution to Australia, just like those migrant families of my generation.”