Heather Gwilliam grew up with the ethos of volunteering: Her parents were always ready to help out, either with their church or later with the Red Cross.
It was an example she found easy to follow and she has been volunteering in one form or another for most of her life.
“They [her parents] were the sort of people who saw a need and did what they could to fill it, either themselves or in consultation with other people. And that’s what I’ve done,” Mrs Gwilliam said.
The Mt Riverview resident’s decades-long voluntary work has been recognised with a medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the Australia Day honours list. The citation particularly refers to her years with Anglicare Disaster Recovery (since 1996) and Gateway Family Services (since 2004).
Mrs Gwilliam is the regional manager of Anglicare Disaster Recovery. She led the team in its response to the 2013 bushfires at a number of evacuation centres. They also door-knocked 5,500 households after the fires, letting people know what services were available and finding out if there was anything else they needed.
She is also very active with Gateway, which collects and distributes donated food and goods to needy families.
It fills the gap that exists because there is no government funding for emergency relief, Mrs Gwilliam said.
“There are grants available for special projects but the nitty gritty, day-by-day things people need, like food relief, that’s not provided.”
So Gateway collects, via the donation box at Blaxland IGA, through the Uniting Church at Blaxland, Lower Mountains Rotary or simply when people turn up and offer something – groceries, toys, clothes, whatever.
Food is distributed throughout the year then at Christmas they make up hampers and presents.
“Last year, we gave gifts to 1,012 individuals – that was 270 families. That’s a lot of sourcing of gifts and food,” Mrs Gwilliam said.
Their own garage is used to store would-be presents and friends with a bit of spare space are often convinced to mind a few things. She’d love to hear from anyone who might have a decent-sized storage area for the donations “that all come from the community”.
Mrs Gwilliam, who was the Mountains’ citizen of the year in 2016 for her volunteering, said when she got the letter about her OAM “I opened it and read it and had to look again to make sure it was my address”.
“I was really excited. I still can’t believe it – it’s just amazing.”
Mrs Gwilliam was also recognised for her work with Nova Employment (she was the inaugural chairwoman of the board), as the co-founder of the Blue Mountains Musical Society in 1981 (“I’m very proud of that”) and her work with special needs students – she still manages to find the time to work with up to 300 students with a disability, helping them apply for, enrol and make their way through TAFE courses.
She thanked her “very patient husband”, Noel, “who backs me up 150 per cent” and hoped her honour might persuade other of the joy that comes from volunteering.
“I’m hoping it will raise the profile of the things we’re doing. And other people might wish to join us and that would be fabulous,” she said.