A life of community dedication

Erika Allen

“YOU’VE got to give, to take.”

This sage advice comes from Denise Stothers, a former Stratford local and Avon Shire councillor from 1980 to 1991, who received an Order of Australia Medal on Australia Day.

Ms Stothers, who was one of more than 1000 Australian award winners for outstanding community work and service, will be presented with the medal by the Governor General later this year.

“I’m very humbled but also feel very honoured to have it bestowed upon me because it’s something I never expected,” she said.

Ms Stothers became a councillor in the Shire of Avon, which joined with the Shire of Alberton, Maffra, Sale, and Rosedale in 1994 to become Wellington Shire, when she was a mother to three children, all under the age of nine.

It was daunting at first, but fellow councillors welcomed her with open arms and treated her like family.

“The councillors that were sitting at the time were elderly gentlemen, old enough to be my father, and they adopted me like their daughter,” she said.

“I was a young woman (33-years-old) with very little knowledge of what was expected of me, but my fellow councillors took me under their wing, giving me advice and confidence.”

Just three years after joining council, Ms Stothers made history when she gave birth to her fourth and youngest daughter while serving a 15-month tenure as the Shire of Avon President – a role she took on again in 1986.

As a former business owner and hairdresser, Ms Stothers was no stranger to the balancing act of raising a young family as a working mother.

Like many mums, Ms Stothers ferried her children to and from weekend sporting events.

Their mother’s community-mindedness rubbed off on her children Brett, Kate, Emily and third-eldest Sarah, a teacher and marriage celebrant who fondly remembers singing Christmas carols and lending a hand with her mum.

She commented on her mother’s award: “We’re very proud because everything she did was in a voluntary capacity.”

Ms Stothers said she just wanted to give back to the community.

When she sat down with the Gippsland Times, passers-by kept offering congratulations to Ms Stothers. They briefly shared memories of times past, when Tupperware clubs and gossip shared over group potato peeling at luncheons brought small communities together.

“When you work with a community like Stratford and district, you don’t have challenges because people just came together,” she said.

“You’ve got to give to take. I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself.”

However, setting an example to follow, Ms Stothers possesses a long list of contributions to the Stratford community. These include raising $26,000 to build Stratford Primary School’s recreation centre; calling weekly bingo nights to raise money for Stratford’s pool, where she also volunteered; and bringing the ever-popular Shakespeare Festival to life as a founding member and its inaugural president, an event she said put Stratford on the map.

Still, she said her proudest moment was seeing Stratford’s sewerage system pioneered, a controversial project given its expense to residents at the time.

When Ms Stothers shared this particular ‘highlight’ at a celebratory family lunch in Cape Patterson, she said many laughs were had.

But it proves that every community service Ms Stothers helped bring to Stratford, had its residents’ best interests at heart.

Humbly, Ms Stothers said the recognition she received was a community effort.

“I was very fortunate for having such a hardworking and dedicated Stratford community who worked tirelessly by giving their time and energy towards many fundraisers alongside me,” she said.

Although Ms Stothers no longer lives in Stratford, choosing to be closer to her children and grandchildren in Melbourne, she still calls Stratford home.

While family is now her main focus, Ms Stothers remains active in her 33rd year as a Justice of the Peace.

Denise Stothers oversaw Stratford’s three consecutive victories (1984-86) in Victoria’s Tidiest Town competition as the chairperson for Stratford’s Tidy Town committee.