Di O'Neil has always been driven to help others.
The 74-year-old said it was her parents who first instilled that belief in her.
"I grew up with an interest in people," Ms O'Neil said. "That was probably fostered at home. I never heard my mum or dad speak badly about any other adults.
"I'm sure they must have had differing point of views but they always found the best in people. In a way, that has always had a big influence on me."
Ms O'Neil grew up in Warragul in the state's east with her parents and brother. She thought she would move into teaching after high school but it didn't quite work out that way.
"When we were in form five, which was the equivalent of year 11, the Commonwealth employment service came to visit the school for two days of testing and interviewing for career options," she said.
"I carefully answered all of the questions so it would say I should be a pre-school teacher. But when they came back with my results, it said I should go into social work. I had no idea what social work was."
But Ms O'Neil took the advice on board and went on to gain her social work qualifications at the University of Melbourne.
Her first job in the sector was at the Presbyterian Social Services in the child and family department.
She then moved on to the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which later became the Children's Protection Society. Ms O'Neil was the first qualified social worker to be employed at that service.
"I was the only person, apart from the women police in the state, who was licensed to apprehend children who were in need of protection," she said. "It was a pretty daunting task."
Ms O'Neil then made the move to Bendigo in 1975 with her husband and 12-month-old daughter.
She started working at what was then the St Luke's Toddlers' Home, a service that was originally designed to house children between the ages of 18 months and five years.
Ms O'Neil said by the time she started at the organisation, there were children as old as 17 who were living there.
"We really looked at the future of all of the kids that were there," Ms O'Neil said. "We went through all of their files and managed to get more than half of the kids that were there back into their own families.
"We eventually moved the rest of the children into houses we had bought in the community. In terms of the kids, it was really significant and that's what's important."
Bendigo's Anglican Diocese then took over the organisation in and it became St Luke's Family Service. Ms O'Neil said it was in 1987 when things really began to change.
"We established the agency on a very strong family-oriented approach, which was quite a change in those days because children and family were not necessarily treated as a unit," she said.
"We looked at the way we were doing our practice and we decided that in fact, instead of assisting people in their empowerment journey, we were instead pushing them back into their problems simply because of the entry requirements.
"The entry requirements for most services are the worse you are, the more likely you are to get a service.
"So people were having to describe the negative sides of their lives in great detail in order to even get a look-in. We decided that in itself was a process that was working against our aims.
"We designed a process where we dropped all the program boundaries and just had generic teams, so when people came to us, instead of testing their eligibility for a particular program, we focused on what would be different in their life if their work with St Luke's was successful.
"Then we built our services around focusing on that picture rather than stamping out the bad picture."
Ms O'Neil said that difference completely changed the whole system.
"It changed the language we used, the way we wrote our policies, and the way we organised ourselves," she said.
"For us at the time, it didn't feel all that revolutionary. It just felt like this was a much more useful way to go. But in hindsight it was pretty revolutionary."
Ms O'Neil spent the next 30 years supporting young people and families at the Bendigo agency.
She received an Order of Australia Medal in 2006 for her contribution to social work.
"I was very honoured, but basically it was just another step in my career," Ms O'Neil said. "The OAM lives in the top of the wardrobe somewhere now.
"For me, it was more for the organisation that I worked with, the development of that agency, and the fantastic people I worked with."
Ms O'Neil retired from the service about 10 years ago, but her desire to help others has never wavered.
She joined the Grandmothers Against the Detention of Refugee Children group in Bendigo about five years ago after hearing about the treatment of refugees on Nauru.
"There were many things I could have followed up after I retired but that in particular caught my attention," she said. "I thought it could be a space where I could maybe do something."
Ms O'Neil is involved with the group locally but also at a state level.
"I always say what we do is educate, advocate, and irritate," she said. "The people we're really interested in engaging with are those who perhaps think like us but are not doing much action.
"We're very strong in our message, but we're not a fearful mob, the grandmothers. We're probably more dangerous than we look but we can engage with ordinary things as well."
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Another great passion in Ms O'Neil's life has been her family.
She is close to her two daughters and two grandchildren, and has a strong friendship with her ex-husband.
Ms O'Neil also has a partner of three years, Jacqui.
"One of the nice things is that all of our friends and our families have been very excited on our behalf," Ms O'Neil said.
"It's been a new experience now that I'm an elderly person, falling in love in our 70s. It's quite a novel idea really."
Ms O'Neil said she never wanted to be defined by her sexuality - rather the work she has done throughout the years and the many friendships she had formed.
"I'm very open about who I am," she said. "But for me, being a gay woman is only a fraction of who I am."
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