24 January 2023
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Local Hero Awards
Among the inspiring change-makers announced for this year’s Australian of the Year Local Hero Awards, two JCU Alumni — Melissa Redsell and Belinda Young — stand out as women empowering change within their local communities.
Recipient of the Queensland Local Hero Award, Melissa Redsell is celebrated for her work as the founder of A Brave Life, a charity that provides baby supplies, emotional nurturing, and paths to education and employment for young mums.
Belinda Young received the Victoria Local Hero Award in recognition of her work as founder of Mums of the Hills, a thriving and resilient community network. Through this group, Belinda has connected and protected mothers in the communities of the Yarra and Dandenong Ranges.
Melissa and Belinda both say that the Local Hero Award has given them a platform for raising awareness and advocating for the mothers in their local communities. “I was absolutely shocked and honoured to receive the Local Hero award,” Melissa says. “It’s given me an incredible opportunity to talk about what I’m passionate about so that we can change the narrative for vulnerable young women and teenage mums.”
Belinda, too, says she was delighted by the award and the opportunities it brings. “It was wonderful to have my work recognised and validated. It gives Mums of the Hills more opportunities to advocate on the challenges that communities, particularly mothers, are facing right around Australia,” she says.
A Brave Life
Melissa Redsell says that access to education made a crucial difference in her life. “Education was a massive game-changer for me,” she says. “When I became pregnant with my daughter, I was told I would never amount to anything. But completing high school and university showed me that I could be successful. I failed a few times, but I was able to stick at it and make it work.”
Melissa was a young mum right out of high school, and says she felt as if her life was getting off-track. So, she decided to make some positive changes. “I had an unstable home life and later found myself in an unhealthy relationship. I wanted to do something positive to change the trajectory of my life and my daughter’s life,” Melissa says.
“So, I called up James Cook University and a lovely man in Admissions asked what I wanted to do. I really wasn’t sure and after chatting he suggested that nursing might be a good fit. I said, ‘Sure! Sign me up!’”
Completing her degree over four years, Melissa says balancing study with motherhood wasn’t always easy, but university gave her a sense of community. “I made some really wonderful friends at JCU who were really supportive and helped me get through my studies. I’m still in contact with them today,” she says.
Later moving to Brisbane and undertaking further study to become a midwife, Melissa says the work again reminded her of the realities of being young mother. “Once I became a registered nurse and then a midwife, I was driven by the thought that I didn’t want another young mum to feel the same judgement and stigma that I had experienced.”
Mentoring and supporting mothers
It was the supportive network she formed at university and the thoughtfulness of a stranger that Melissa says made all the difference.
“When I was pregnant with my daughter, I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have the essentials I would need for her. One day, a friend of mine showed up to my house with a basket full of newborn essentials like nappies, cloths, baby wash and handmade items. I was just blown away by the generosity of it and I always had in my mind that I wanted to give back in the same way,” she says.
“As a midwife, I would see young mums turn up at the hospital. They each had their own dreams and goals. They also didn’t have any of the essentials for their newborn baby.
“In 2015, I started putting together little bags with newborn essentials and gifting them to young parent organisations. By 2016, A Brave Life had become a registered charity. At first, we were just working out of my garage, but today we have our own building and a growing team.”
Since then, A Brave Life has gifted around 1,000 bags per year, making more than 8,000 donations since they first began. “We partner with support services that reach many sections of the community to ensure that Baby Bundle bags go directly to young and vulnerable mums who may be facing domestic violence, homelessness, poverty or trauma,” she says.
Melissa has also written a book, hoping to inspire other young mums, and the charity runs mentoring and life skills programs. “We work with teenage and young mums that are still in high school as well as mums that have graduated but are looking to pursue further education or employment.”
Melissa says she has big plans for the future and would like to further A Brave Life’s reach. “My plan is to get back into north Queensland; my heart is still in Townsville. We'd like to expand and reach more of those rural and remote areas where there’s not a lot of support for young mums.”
Mums of the Hills
A little further south, Belinda Young has also dedicated her time to supporting and empowering mothers. Belinda says that growing up in Townsville gave her an inherited dedication to serving her local community and a strong sense of disaster preparedness.
Living in the remote and beautiful Yarra Ranges, however, Belinda says it was just one small event that put into perspective how critical it was to engage with others in her local community. “When I first moved here, I fell off a ladder. I realised that I could have screamed as much as I could and no one would have heard me. It wasn’t a safe situation to be in and I needed to do something about it,” she says.
“So, Mums of the Hills (MotHs) began as a way to ensure that myself, and others like me, are supported, connected and disaster prepared.”
Belinda’s studies at JCU in business and project management gave her the skills to mobilise people in her community. “MotHs first started as a space to connect with others online. Then as it grew, my background in business and project management became more useful,” she says. “It gave me skills to get local mothers involved, drive activities and make sure our projects were completed.”
Connecting mums, thriving communities
Living in the Yarra and Dandenong Ranges is beautiful but the area is vulnerable to disasters, Belinda says. From bushfires and intense storms to fallen trees and frequent loss of electricity and phone reception, mobilising and preparing mothers is critical to community wellbeing.
“Mothers are the keepers of our children’s health and wellbeing. They’re also wise and knowledgeable, experienced and talented.” Belinda says. “Our vision is to ensure that mums in our community are connected and can thrive in a hills environment.”
Belinda says that MotHs facilitates everything from practical workshops, information sessions, coordinating disaster recovery and advocating for local service improvements.
“In 2019, we had a massive storm and in a single night more than 25,000 trees — many weighing over 100 tonnes — fell in the forest that surrounded us. We lost all phone reception for five days, power for 21 days and nbn for 71. We were afraid to use our chainsaws and equipment to help clear our way out because if someone got injured, there was no way of getting medical attention,” Belinda says.
Since then, Belinda has created online community information hubs that aid disaster preparedness. “We’ve created an online ‘sleeper’ group that will activate if the area is anticipating a natural disaster,” she says. “One of the challenges during natural disasters is getting a consistent and clear message out across social media, so the group can streamline and coordinate that whole process.”
Belinda says another challenge in the Yarra is large trees that can often fall and block the road. “These trees are called Mountain Ash, but also often referred to as Widow Makers. In total stillness they can suddenly drop massive branches,” she says. “If you’re taking the kids to school, these can often block the road. It’s simple to clear them with a chainsaw, but we needed to train and prepare the mums in how to use them safely and effectively.”
MotHs also runs community information sessions. “A lot of people buy their insurance but don’t necessarily check if they’re covered for specific disasters. I wanted to make sure people were informed and covered by their insurance to prevent future difficulties.”
With many people moving out of the cities and into places like the Yarra and Dandenong Ranges, Belinda is keen to help more newcomers connect to their community. “We’re trying really hard to build those networks and ensure local knowledge and social capital are retained in the mountains.”
“The forest is beauty and it is danger,” she says. “What I love about this place is more than just the beauty of animals and the environment, but the people are so determined, resilient and self-sufficient.”
Want to find out more about empowering mothers with the resources and skills to thrive? You can check out Belinda’s work with A Brave Life and learn how you can support their cause, or find information about Mums of the Hills through their LinkedIn and Melissa’s range of resources for people living in the Yarra and Dandenong Ranges.