As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, we’re shining a light on some of the inspiring women in our community making a difference.
Wendy Smith’s passion for helping others was sparked as a child, helping her mum and grandmother deliver Meals on Wheels.
“We used to go together when I was really little and I loved it – I always wanted to be in caring for oldies,” Wendy says.
Decades on, and Wendy is still doing just that – as well as helping people recovering from injury, new mums and others unable to cook for themselves.
“It’s something I always wanted to do but it took me a lot to get there,” she explains.
After raising four children while her husband worked, Wendy began working for Queensland Health as a Home Care Co-ordinator, with life coming full circle when she was invited to join Pine Rivers Meals on Wheels.
She lost her husband of 38 years to cancer two years ago after caring for him for eight years.
“He had been sick and I couldn’t commit to anything full time – I had to work though and the kids cared for their father.
“I miss him dearly, but I can put the hours in now and I totally love it.”
Her dream, since working with Meals on Wheels, has been to merge the region’s smaller services to create a larger network with more support for clients, volunteers and workers.
Services at Caboolture, Bribie Island, Burpengary and Samford will come under the umbrella of Meals on Wheels Moreton Bay, servicing 880 clients with more than 230 volunteers.
But Wendy says there’s still more to do – she’s on the hunt for space for a large, centralised kitchen to produce meals and has other projects on the agenda.
“Now we’re trying to get a vehicle so we can do wellness checks on clients – it’s about $25,000 for another car,” she says.
To volunteer with Meals on Wheels Moreton Bay or to find out more about the service email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 3285 2532.
Long before Sharon Baker spent her days helping veterans, she was part of the first female platoon to go to Kapooka for army training.
It was 1985, she was 21 years old, and the sceptical Australian public and media didn’t think the women had what it took to make it.
Sharon and her platoon proved them wrong.
“It was tough because the media feeling was that they didn’t want the females to succeed,” she recalls.
They did better than succeed, they proved women should be integrated into the army not in a separate platoon.
“We not only passed the training, we must have smashed it,” she says.
It’s just the way it happened. She had attempted to join the Australian regular amy previously and was a member of the Army Reserve.
At the time, she was living on the Sunshine Coast and it was difficult to find work.
“The Defence Force was going to give me some sort of a trade. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted a chance to better myself,” she recalls.
That trade ended up being administration and it set her on a path that now sees her navigating legislation and veteran entitlements to get the best results for ex-servicemen and women.
Sharon was medically discharged in 2009 and did such a good job in putting her own claim together, the RSL offered her a job.
“It’s a really good fit for me … administration, knowing the language and what people have been through,” she explains.
At one point, she was one of only seven in Australia to have attained level 4 in her role.
She also now trains other advocates at Geebung, Bray Park and Bribie Island.
“They need to be able to understand the legislation and its complexities and be able to give the right advice. That’s really important,” she says.
“Veterans need that assistance. Some don’t know what their rights are.”
So, has there been someone who has inspired her to follow the path she has?
“I try to take bits and pieces from the people that I admire,” she says.
What would she tell 20-year-old Sharon?
“Enjoy life, embrace all the opportunities that come your way. I was a really top-level sports person, represented Australia, and you don’t realise until you step back that not everyone gets to do that,” she says.
She played volleyball with the Australian Defence Force team and was invited to go to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), but her captain at the time would not let her go.
“Don’t dwell on everything. Think, what can I do, if I can’t do that? Look for the good, because there’s always something there.”
Evanthia Smith is so passionate about volunteering she’s still involved with Bray Park State School five years after the youngest of her three children left.
Evanthia says she’s motivated to help because she wants to ensure children have the best possible future.
“I feel it is a privilege to be able to volunteer my time with other like-minded people, all working towards a common goal of giving our students the best possible opportunities to achieve and be the best they can be,” she says.
“Being involved with the P&C has given me first-hand knowledge of the important role all P&Cs play in helping schools to deliver better outcomes for students, staff, and our local communities.
“We have such a fabulous team on our P&C – we work really well together and that makes a real difference as well.”
Evanthia’s volunteering career began when she joined a Safety House committee.
“I got involved in volunteer work through that – at the time I had one (child) at school and one at home,” she recalls.
“Then I got picked to join the P&C at Bray Park and I have just stayed involved because someone’s got to do it and it’s for the community, for our students, to give them the best chance possible.
“If we can’t give them the tools to be the best they can be, we’re letting them down.”
When Evanthia’s not helping at Bray Park, she’s transforming the Pine Rivers State High tuckshop one sausage sizzle at a time.
Evanthia says Bunnings sausage sizzles have been instrumental in funding equipment to finish the upgrade of the tuckshop, as well as raising money for the school’s music committee and aquatics club.
“Doing Bunnings, I am packing the car the night before and down there no later than 7 in the morning,” she says.
“We used $3-4000 to finish the tuckshop with a washing machine, dishwasher and flyscreens and we’re hoping to do more this year.”
Ronnie Benbow has a drive all her own but says her desire to help others came from her father.
“My dad was the kindest, most beautiful person,” the Cedar Creek resident says.
When he died in 2015, Ronnie finally formalised her dream to create the Carers’ Foundation, which provides support for those caring for others.
“Dad was the eldest of 13 and had no schooling, but he taught himself how to read and write” she recalls.
“It was natural that I would go into a caring and compassionate role.”
Ronnie says working as a young nurse was eye-opening – she often saw carers in worse shape than their charges – and she vowed to herself that one day she would do something about it.
“They sacrifice careers, interests, hobbies and at the end they don’t know what to do,” she explains.
“All they are is this carer, which is not right – they’re not the husband or wife or daughter because all their time is consumed with appointments and caring.”
Ronnie is no stranger to being a carer herself - she looked after her husband when he had a shocking accident that left him paralysed from the neck down; then her son, who had a life-threatening condition and her own parents – all while raising her family, working and fostering a dream of helping others.
The Carers Foundation helped 300 people in its first year – and still has 300 people waiting to take part in its programs more than five years later.
The Foundation runs one-day programs and three-day wellness retreats teaching carers strategies to cope and reminding them to consider their own wellbeing as well as that of the parent, partner, sibling or others for whom they care.
“It’s life saving for a lot of our carers – we tell them ‘don’t be naïve, just believe in yourself’,” she explains.
“We are the only charity in Australia providing these programs at no cost.”
Melissa Redsell’s inspiration to succeed comes from her daughter, Breanna.
As women around the globe celebrate International Women’s Day, the Warner mum says her drive to succeed comes from a desire to offer her eldest daughter a different life from the one she experienced as a teen.
Melissa, who founded the charity A Brave Life, which helps young mums-to-be on their parenting journey and to keep following their educational and career dreams, says having Breanna was a powerful motivation to follow her dreams.
“I didn’t really have any family behind me cheering me on, so I wanted to create that lifestyle for her,” Melissa says.
“I did it on my own, but I had her to be that inspiration to give her and I a better life.”
Melissa was 16 when she found she was pregnant, and ignored people who told her that life was over, graduating from high school only months before she had Breanna.
Sheer determination saw her go on to study nursing, then midwifery, before founding A Brave Life to champion young mums and show them there were many pathways available to help them realise their goals.
“Along the journey I have found some really close friends, two in particular, one a midwife and one a registered nurse, and they’re my biggest cheerleaders,” she says.
“I think it’s so important as women and mothers to have other women and mothers in your world.”
Melissa says she’s found support in other areas of her life too.
“I’ve been married for nearly 23 years and my husband is my biggest supporter,” she says.
“I think growing up in such an unstable home, I have wanted something different.”
Melissa says it’s humbling to be regarded as an inspiration and mentor by the young women with whom she works at A Brave Life.
“On a day-to-day basis you don’t see yourself like that, but when they say to you ‘I look up to you’ or ‘you inspire me’, that’s when I stop and think ‘oh my goodness!’,” she says.
“You’re doing small things and you don’t realise the big impact you’re having on someone’s life.
“I love that it’s like a big, full circle effect – my journey can inspire someone else and there’s can inspire someone and the circle goes on.”