In her 27 years, Bree Mellberg has experienced dizzying highs and devastating lows.
She went from being one of the country’s best divers to a young woman unsure of her place in the world.
Anorexia and depression threatened to overwhelm her, but Bree fought them off.
Just as she was feeling invincible, she sustained a life-changing injury in a trampolining accident.
This week, Bree shared her story with the 200 attendees at the Zonta Club of Bendigo’s International Women’s Day dinner.
She was invited as a former recipient of the club’s Ann Horrocks STEM scholarship, which supports women to pursue tertiary studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
Because Bree didn’t just accept that an injury had changed her life.
She owned it.
“On reflection of what I once had and what I had lost, I realised that I no longer wanted to waste precious moments on meaningless tasks, that if my choices were going to limited in what I could do, I wanted to choose carefully,” she told the attendees at Tuesday night’s event.
While she was laid up in bed, Bree set herself three goals.
She wanted to move out of home and live independently, return to university, and drive her car again.
Bree shared with the attendees three life lessons that had helped her achieve these goals, and more.
“Sometimes, you just need to get up, take small steps, and be passionate,” she said.
It was when she struggled with anorexia and depression that she learned the value of getting up even when life had dealt a low blow.
“A dear friend said to me one day: Bree, when the day seems too hard to face, get up, have a shower, put on some make up and your favourite clothes,” she said.
“If after this you still don’t want to face the world, then that’s okay, you can go back to bed.
“But, interestingly, after you do all that it seems an awful waste to go back to bed.”
Recovering from the injury in which she broke and dislocated her neck reinforced the value of incremental progress.
“I remember one morning early on in my recovery I had woken early and wanted to get up,” Bree said.
“I knew I could call mum to come get me up, but I didn’t want to rely on mum for everything.
“I wanted to be able to do it myself and be the independent woman I knew I once was.
“I spent a long time lying there thinking about what I had lost and how unfair it was. But I also began to realise how fortunate I was to still be alive and how we are all so fragile.”
The process of rebuilding her life made Bree realise where her passions lay.
“I feel that everyone should do this: take the time to sit and think about what you are truly passionate about - what makes you smile and feel that getting out of bed is worth it,” she said.
Her passions turned out to be sport, studying science and becoming a strong, independent woman.
“Fast forward to the present [and] I am now not only a science graduate with a plan for post-graduate studies, but I am also a member of the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team, called the Gliders,” Bree said.
“I have represented Australia in four international tournaments in the past 12 months, returning just two weeks ago from Japan.
“I am a sponsored athlete, and am currently in training and up for selection for the World Championships to be held in Hamburg in August.”
Bree is passionate about challenging the stigma surrounding people who use wheelchairs and encouraging the broader community to look at people with disabilities with awe and respect rather than pity.
“I want people to see the person, not the chair,” she said.
Encouraging women to speak up
Sei Sei Mu Thein was born and spent 20 years of her life in a refugee camp.
The trauma the Karen people had endured in war-torn Burma, or Myanmar, manifested itself in silence and submission – particularly for women.
“They don’t speak up – they don’t feel they have the right to do so,” Sei Sei said.
Life might have been that way before, but Sei Sei saw no reason why it ought to remain so when she moved to Bendigo in 2008 – the 17th Karen person to do so.
“You can speak up. You do have a voice,” she said.
“You can be whatever you want to be.”
As one of two joint recipients of the Woman of Achievement award at Tuesday night’s function, Sei Sei reaffirmed her commitment to improving life for the 2000-or-so Karen people who now call Bendigo home.
“If you need help then I’ll be here to support you and guide you,” the Karen Organisation of Bendigo president said.
The organisation has two visions: to promote opportunities for the Karen people in Bendigo, while maintaining and celebrating the community’s culture and traditions.
“We’re trying to open a Karen language school to teach Karen language to the younger generation and broader community,” Sei Sei said.
The organisation has its sights set on improving literacy, teaching traditional dancing, and running a women’s class.
Sei Sei has embraced opportunities for education and community involvement.
She is a qualified teacher, having studied at La Trobe University, and has been working as a translator for about eight years.
Though still interested in teaching, Sei Sei is presently exploring her passion for helping the Karen community in Bendigo.
Hungering for change
Cathie Steele was reluctant to accept a nomination for the Zonta Club of Bendigo’s Woman of Achievement award.
“This is just what you do because you try and do something to help,” the Bendigo Foodshare chair said.
But she realised being nominated would highlight the achievements of the not-for-profit organisation and the opportunities to further address food insecurity in our community.
So, on Tuesday night, Cathie Steele joined Sei Sei Mu Thein on The Conservatory stage at the All Seasons Hotel to accept the joint award.
“I do believe it is important to recognise what people do,” Cathie said.
“Whilst I’m the leader, it is a team that makes it work.”
She said the award was recognition of the work the team did to take food to people in the community who needed it.
“The need is so great,” Cathie said.
While about one in 11 people in Bendigo experience food insecurity, as many as one in nine people in other parts of the region are unsure of where their next meal is coming from.
“Some of those are children, some are adults, but for every one of them it’s a huge stress,” Cathie said.
The organisation collects food that would otherwise go to waste and redistributes it.
Bendigo Foodshare runs a schools program which not only nourishes children’s bodies, but helps educate them about healthy eating and food preparation.
The organisation believes as many as 14,000 people a month are recipients of the food it redistributes.
“All the agencies tell us, ‘We’re not getting enough food’,” Cathie said.
“It is a community responsibility… we really need the community’s help and we value the community’s help.
“If people have food to donate, we’ll take it.”
Change in business
The Bendigo-based former Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning secretary, Adam Fennessy, has been in the spotlight at International Women’s Day celebrations this week.
The Male Champion of Change sat on the panel of this year’s Women in Rotary International Women’s Day breakfast in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Mr Fennessy was at the launch of Norah Breekveldt’s book, ‘Me and My Mentor’ the day prior – recognition of his contribution to one of its chapters.
Gender diversity in the workplace and women’s leadership were hot topics this International Women’s Day.
And Mr Fennessy’s experiences lent themselves to a discussion of what businesses could be doing better, and the benefits of becoming more inclusive.
Women were underrepresented when he started in the role at DELWP, occupying about 28 per cent of senior executive positions.
“I just remember thinking, well that’s not right,” Mr Fennessy said.
He knew increasing gender diversity would take ‘a long time’ without help.
So Mr Fennessy set a goal of increasing the proportion of women in senior executive roles to 50 per cent.
“It was really important if women were going into new roles they knew they got there because of their talent, not a target,” he said.
“For every position we would make sure we had a gender equal shortlist for candidates and a gender-balanced panel.”
Selectors started focusing less on technical expertise and more on the skills candidates would need to run part of a government business or department.
“Skills like leadership, communication, negotiation and interpersonal skills,” Mr Fennessy said.
“You’ve just got to be able to lead and motivate people, deliver good results and connect with the community.
“When we thought about it broadly we could talk to so many new people.”
The department reached its target in about two-and-a-half years.
“Towards the end of my time at DELWP we had pretty much 50:50 balance in executive, of men and women,” Mr Fennessy said.
“It showed it could be done. And, as a result, we had a much more diverse leadership team.”
A privilege to be at annual #WomenInRotary#IWD2018 Breakfast in #Melbourne on panel with @alimoore004, @andy_penn, Ombudsman Deborah Glass, Emma Welsh from @EmmaAndToms & the awesome @husna_pasha talking positive change & how we #PressForProgress#WomenFastForward@EY_Australiapic.twitter.com/NBoxy7qFcM— Adam Fennessy (@adamfennessy) March 7, 2018
Not only was the team gender diverse, there was greater cultural diversity and a broader range of skills and expertise.
“We looked a little bit more like the communities we were meant to be serving,” Mr Fennessy said.
The department made all roles flexible and encouraged all employees to consider working more flexibly.
“We wanted to move it away from a women’s or men’s issue to a person’s issue,” Mr Fennessy said.
He said his current employer, Ernst and Young, has a similar approach.
“It really brings out the best of your people,” Mr Fennessy said.
“At my last job, at DELWP, we started registering and reporting on gender pay gap.”
“We got it down to 1.8 per cent towards the end of my time at DELWP.”
In lead up to #IWD2018, I was excited to attend book launch of "Me and My Mentor" by @NBreekveldt, celebrating stories of how mentoring supercharged the careers of 11 extraordinary women. Even more excited to be in the book! @EY_Australiahttps://t.co/K4LDnFvsmspic.twitter.com/IXRJwmWKaj— Adam Fennessy (@adamfennessy) March 6, 2018
He said reporting to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency had helped promote the ‘technical path to change’ – one of measuring and publicly reporting performance.
“The human side of it is the storytelling… showing you can make change,” Mr Fennessy said.
He said one of the strengths of International Women’s Day was creating awareness.
“There has been a lot of momentum from previous years but we’ve got to keep pushing and think, ‘What are some of the new things we can do?’”
The World Economic Forum this year identified the gender pay gap, inequality in women’s superannuation upon retirement, and the burden of unpaid care work among the barriers to women’s progress.
Other factors included discrimination against stay-at-home mums by employers and a reluctance on the part of powerful men to sponsor female colleagues for fear of rumors.