Alumni News Articles

Victoria's Australian of the Year award recipients announced

17 November 2008


Dr Berhan Ahmed, Pat LaManna OAM, Leigh Mathews, Beverley Wall

7:15PM MELBOURNE:  An inspirational Sudanese refugee, an energetic entrepreneur and philanthropist, a charity founder changing lives in Cambodia and a town hero who rescued her community from ruin have tonight been named as the Victorian recipients in the Australian of the Year Awards 2009.

The Governor of Victoria, His Excellency Professor David de Kretser AC presented the recipients with their awards in a ceremony this evening and congratulated all finalists on having earned such a prestigious honour from their fellow Victorians.

The Victorian award recipients are:

The Victoria Australian of the Year 2009 is African-Australian community leader Dr Berhan Ahmed.

At the age of 15, Berhan Ahmed became a refugee from Eritrea. He was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship to study in Egypt and, in 1987, came to Australia as a refugee with little English. He began working as a tram conductor to learn about Australian society and practice English. From these humble beginnings he has gone on to complete his PhD in Agricultural Science and is now a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He has been instrumental in building bridges between the African and wider Australian communities, forging relationships with politicians, community, business leaders and philanthrophic organisations. He encourages people to focus on the things that unite us as human beings, not the superficial differences. He initiated and implemented a number of projects for Melbourne's African community to raise the standard of living, educational engagement and achievement, level of employment, and integration. He has personally supported many newly-arrived refugees, and is always there to offer guidance and a helping hand through the difficult process of arriving in a new country after traumatic experience. His core philosophy is that every individual deserves a fair go and a chance to make a better life. He actively encourages young people in shaping their own futures with a confidence that comes from a sense of pride in their identity.

The Victoria Senior Australian of the Year 2009 is entrepreneur and philanthropist Pat LaManna OAM.

Having come from a poor background himself, Pat LaManna readily relates to the misfortunes of others. He battled racism and economic adversity during the years after his arrival in Australia from Italy in 1948, but he persevered and became a successful entrepreneur. He has used these skills to give back to countless charities in Australia and the Third World. He has been a member of the Lions Club for 40 years and founded the Lions Club of the Melbourne Markets in 1972 which has become the highest fund raising Lions Club in Australia. Due to his commitment, he has been elected president of the club seven times. Pat also started the Hand-to-Hand Appeal for the Bionic Hands Department at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, raising $198,000, and the Pat LaManna Cancer and Research Stroke Foundation which has raised $1.5 million to date. He established the annual Melbourne Passion Play in 1997, an outdoor re-enactment of the story of Christ that is funded by Pat and is free to the public. These are but a few of the generous contributions Pat has made to the community, serving it with energy and devotion.

The Victoria Young Australian of the Year 2009 is Charity founder Leigh Mathews.

At just 23 years of age Leigh Mathews founded the Future Cambodia Fund, an organisation working with disadvantaged children and their families in Cambodia. After travelling the world she was struck by both the beauty of Cambodia and the tragic circumstances of its people. She made the decision to stay in Siem Reap, volunteering for charitable organisations until her money ran out and she returned to Melbourne to set up her own charity. Over the last four years she has worked seven days a week in her determination to help Cambodia's children, and in a short time has made an enormous difference. Programs delivered by the organisation include remedial education; health and dental support; and activities for children including sports, recreation, dance and drama. They also run a water, sanitation and health program to educate women, and have built a children's centre which now has 160 children in attendance. Despite devastating setbacks and enormous hurdles to overcome Leigh has never wavered in her vision and commitment. She demonstrates that when you truly believe in what you are doing you can achieve anything.

The Victoria Local Hero of the Year 2009 is town hero Beverley Wall.

Woomelang has a small population of 200 and Bev Wall has committed her energy to maintaining the town's services. When the local post office was facing closure she not only bought it to ensure that postal services were maintained, but also expanded its role to meet gaps left by the closure of other postal services in the region. Within 24 hours of the local supermarket closing, Bev again expanded the post office to supply groceries. It is now the hub of the town, the focal point where everyone meets. With the pressure of the drought on the community, the local garage was the next to close. But Bev would not see the town without this essential service so she began ordering fuel and organised a roster of volunteers to man a petrol depot that she set up. She also worked to obtain a certificate to become the town's only Justice of the Peace. In addition she is a member of several committees, including the Woomelang Bush Nursing Centre, Country Women's Association, and is Secretary of the Development Association. Bev has kept her town alive. The quality of life for Woomelang's residents is much improved by her efforts.

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