This International Women's Day, we celebrate three women who have (and continue to) positively impact The St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria and our wider communities.
An equal sign underpins the theme – #eachforequal – for this year’s International Women's Day – on Sunday 8 March – and calls upon everyone (not just women) to work together to achieve gender equality.
After all, an equal world is an enabled world. A gender equal world can be healthier, wealthier and more harmonious.
Meet the four incredible women we highlight this year:
Jo De Boer and Cath McMahon
“I’m a woman. What’s your superpower?” That sentiment is on T-shirts that Bairnsdale conference president Cath McMahon bought for her and her Vice President Jo De Boer.
Cath took on her role two years ago and says “the blokes found it a bit challenging at first” in a conference that historically had only men in leadership posts. But now they have Cath and Jo, and during the bushfire crisis appointed a second co-Vice President, Trish Veevers. Cath acknowledges treasurer John Spirason and the team’s other amazing male volunteers, but wants to use this occasion to celebrate the “unique and awesome power that women provide to our conference”. Also in her team is secretary Tricia Spirason and twinning officer Phyl Fowler.
Cath and her team have faced the toughest circumstances ever experienced by the conference. They first worked round-the-clock at the emergency centre that was set up at the Bairnsdale football ground, then carried on back at their assistance centre at a pace they have never seen before. Cath says their work “is still really full-on” and estimates that half the people they are assisting now have been affected by the fires, a quarter by the drought and the remaining quarter are people the conference would traditionally serve.
Many of the former “would never have had need to come through our door before”, says Cath. She and her team have delivered all sorts of assistance to those affected by the fires, some of whom have lost their homes. They have provided everything from emergency accommodation, food, water, shoes, hearing aid batteries, car repairs and generator fuel to cinema tickets and pool passes so that families with children might feel a little bit normal again.
Cath is being recognised on IWD for her immense energy and determination to serve her community while at the same time looking after her team as they have all pushed themselves to the limits of emotional and physical exhaustion. Three quarters of the people who come into the assistance centre are women, says Cath – because “men find it difficult”. “Usually it is the female partner who seeks help, especially when children are involved. And when women see women here, I think they open up more,” she says.
Cath comes from strong female stock. When Cath was four and her mother was pregnant with her sixth child, Cath’s father became a quadriplegic overnight after a diving accident at a Melbourne swimming pool. “Our lives changed that day for ever.” Cath’s father had been an accountant and her mother a nurse, but she had to leave her job to look after Cath’s father following the accident. They received no compensation and the family went from being financially comfortable to many years of poverty. It was Vinnies that helped keep the wolf from the door, says Cath, and she says without the Society, she would not have received Christmas presents for many years when she was a child.
The experiences of her childhood underpin Cath’s work with the Society: “I feel in tune with people who are less fortunate. I see needs that maybe other people don’t because of my background.”
Cath is a fierce advocate for women: “I have a strong team around me and I am passionate about empowering women. My top advice is to 100% to believe in yourself. I have grown enormously since becoming president. Through the adversity of the last few months, we have all grown stronger together.”
You may be aware that earlier this year, the Society received an astonishingly generous bequest of $3.1 million from Marietta Cronin, known as Marie, who had donated regularly to the St Vincent de Paul Society during her life – to the tune of $13,000 – but had never made an inquiry about how to leave a gift in her will.
Her executor and friend of 60 years, Kerrie Ince, has taken the time to give us some background information on Marie, who donated the money, she says, because Marie “believed in St Vincent de Paul and shared the charity’s values”.
Marie lived all her life in Hampton in a house that her father built with her two brothers and sister. She attended the Star of the Sea, an all-girls' college that still operates in Gardenvale. It was through Marie’s strong connection with the Catholic Church and donor communications that Marie was aware of St Vincent de Paul’s ‘good works’ in the community.
Kerrie describes Marie as a woman ahead of her times. She went on to work for the Department of Defence and the Australian Tax Office. She says Marie felt comfortable saying no or standing up for her rights and beliefs, and was frustrated to have to end her career at the tax office with retirement at the age of 55 – as was the regulation at the time.
During WWII, Marie had loved working with the Department of Defence, where she allocated supplies. She was a strong, independent woman and took great delight in being the one many of her male colleagues would ask for advice.
What were the values important to Marie that she saw reflected in St Vincent de Paul Society?
Kerrie says Marie believed that having a good education was the most important thing in life – she felt blessed to have had a full education and that you “can travel the world through books”. Marie supported St Mary's Primary School in Hampton and donated money to build schools in developing countries.
Marie was generous, compassionate and “had an interest in people and, in fact, every sentient being,” Kerrie says. She adds: “When we went out to Hampton Street, she knew all the traders – she knew about their children, spouses and workers. If we all had a bit of Marie in us, what a wonderful world it would be.”
After all her siblings died, Marie inherited the house in Hampton, but went into care at age 99, where she was full of life until contracting shingles and dying in 2018 at 103 years old.
While it is impossible to measure belief, least of all in monetary terms, Marie was clearly a woman aware of the world’s shortcomings and the power of education to overcome them who put a lot of stock into the good that St Vincent de Paul does in the community. Inspiring indeed for us.
Louisa Selvadurai – Equality is the future
“Being a strong woman is about forming good relationships with other women. It’s about knowing that you don’t have to be and do everything because we all have different skills that can complement each other. It’s about being yourself.”
Louisa Selvadurai says that she’s learned this truism through working at Vinnies Kids’ Camps, where some female co-volunteers are good at talking quietly with children and others are good at hyping them up with high-energy games – “and we absolutely need everyone”.
Louisa, a stalwart of Vinnies’ youth programs since 2013, is also training to become a neuropsychologist and has just been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Boston – she credits her experience at Vinnies in helping her application to succeed.
The criteria included demonstrable ambassadorial skills and being able to contribute to American society while she is on the 10-month program. Louisa says that her leadership roles at St Vincent de Paul – such as serving on the State Youth Team from 2015 to 2019 along with her Kids Camp and Endeavour Hills Soup Van experience – definitely played a part in winning the assessors over, along with a glowing reference from the Vinnies Youth Team.
Louisa has just submitted her doctoral thesis at Monash University and after graduation later this year, will head to the US to take up the scholarship. The experience will no doubt be an invaluable addition to her already striking achievements at age 26, and Louisa intends to remain committed to volunteering at St Vincent de Paul when she returns.
Louisa says that working with Vinnies has also helped in her work life: “Helping people who are struggling in some way gives you a broader perspective on structural issues in society that can really affect people's daily lives, such as lack of a support network or employment. People bring all sorts of complex needs to psychologists and working with Vinnies has given me a deeper understanding and empathy around that.”
The St Vincent de Paul Society is delighted to see that our dedicated Footscray Soup Van president Lina Pahor has been awarded Volunteer of the Year at Maribyrnong Council’s 2020 Civic Awards for her longstanding work with the local community – and was featured in the Maribyrnong Messenger.
Lina is the backbone of the operation and is involved in all activities on the service, from heating up soup in the kitchen, training new volunteers, driving the vans or having a friendly chat with a regular – all with a warm smile on her face.
The reason Lina volunteers is simple, she says: “Just knowing you’ve got the ability to help someone is why I do it. Deep down, you know you are making a difference.”
Lina was also instrumental in setting up the Maidstone Community Reading Club last year. The club offers free after-school reading assistance aimed at helping primary school-aged students who may have challenges around reading at home to improve and enjoy their time with books.
Well done Lina!