Koala conservationist Maria Matthes was named Ballina’s Citizen of the Year in yesterday’s Australia Day Awards, which were closed to the public but livestreamed from the Lennox Head Cultural Centre.
MC Sandra Jackson joined special guest Liz Ellis in presenting the awards, along with nominees, guests, and local councillors, led by new Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader.
The two new Greens councillors were not present. Cr Simon Chate told The Echo, ‘While we congratulate those people who attained Australian citizenship today, Councillor Dicker and I chose not to attend today’s Australia Day ceremony as January 26 has become a day of loss and mourning for our indigenous community and we feel it is inappropriate to celebrate this date.’
In all, thirty nominations were acknowledged across the award categories of Sports, Young Citizen, Senior Citizen, Environmental, Community Event, Arts/Cultural and Volunteer of the Year.
Citizen of the Year Maria Matthes has been a threatened species ecologist for more thirty years, with a particular interest in koalas, ecological communities including koala habitat and fire ecology, recovery planning and education.
In 2016 she became a koala rescuer with Friends of the Koala. Ever since she has been on call 24 hours a day to conduct welfare checks and to rescue sick or injured koalas and transport them to the Koala Hospital in Lismore.
Ms Matthes said the award was unexpected and she was ‘a bit embarassed’ to be nominated again. ‘But with consideration I thought that it’s a reflection of the value and importance that the community places on our koalas and the effort I am putting into recovering them… it has been a really tumultuous four years for them.’
She spoke about losses of koalas due to drought, car accidents, dogs and disease, and her fears for koalas living along the planned Barlows Road bypass, but said the wet weather was helping the species come back from the brink in the wider Ballina area.
Ms Matthes said she looked forward to government at different levels doing more to protect koalas.
The Sporting Achievement Award was shared between young steeplechase champion Tyler Dogan and Veronica Silver, club secretary of the Alstonville Water Polo Club for the last twenty years.
The Arts/Cultural Award was also shared, between the Ballina & District Historical Society, for their work on the new Ballina District Museum, and Sue Belsham, long-time community theatre director with Ballina Players and Supa North.
Young Citizen of the Year went to Eli Carr, who was unable to attend as he was in Queensland with COVID. Eli was recognised for his fundraising work with The Healthy Minds Club and Starlight Children’s Swim Challenge, amongst other achievements.
Senior Citizen of the Year was awarded to Barry Fiedler, who has a long history of community service for organisations including Pearces Creek Hall and the Alstonville Tibouchina Day Club. As the MC put it, ‘at a time when most people are putting their feet up, Barry continues to put his hand up!’
Volunteer of the Year went to Jo Parker, President of Northern Rivers Animal Service, the organisation which has found homes for more than 1,600 abandoned cats and dogs since 2001.
Ms Parker is also known for her cooordination of the Ballina Mother’s Day Classic, which has raised many thousands of dollars for the National Breast Cancer Foundation, to support breast cancer awareness and education.
Community Event of the Year was shared by Dementia Inclusive Ballina Alliance and the COVID Crisis Meal Centre, which was a joint service provided by the Ballina Hot Meal Centre, Cherry Street Sports Club, Rotary Club of Ballina-on-Richmond, and Ballina Masonic Centre.
Rotary President Col Lee said, ‘It’s a great thrill for us to be awarded this very prestigious award. This is a wonderful recognition.’
He explained that almost 9,000 meals were distributed during the COVID crisis to a wide range of people who found themselves in a situation of great distress, through no fault of their own. ‘We recognize the difference it’s made to a lot of families and people who are having hardship,’ said Mr Lee.
The Environmental Award went to Ballina Shire’s kerbside garbage collectors, who were too busy collecting rubbish to collect their award in person, but recognised for the ‘amazing job’ they continue to do as Ballina expands in all directions, with each truck emptying up to 1,200 bins a day.
Eleven new Australian citizens from Canada, Vietnam, Philippines, United Kingdom, India and South Africa were warmly welcomed to Ballina Shire by Mayor Sharon Cadwallader.
Musical highlights of the ceremony were provided by opera singer Katie Rutledge, who was joined by Dean Doyle and Narelle Harris.
A full-recording of the livestreamed event can be viewed on demand below.