Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Donna Stolzenberg, Victoria’s Australian of the Year, Has a Big Heart for the Homeless

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Kathy McWilliams
Kathy grew up in suburban Melbourne, where she still lives. She has two crazy cats that keep her company and make her laugh every day. Her favourite food is pasta and she loves cooking. Kathy is a passionate human rights advocate and believes that every act of kindness makes a difference to the world, even if it’s something as simple as smiling at a stranger. Kathy finds hope and inspiration in writing stories that help to bring compassion and understanding to the world.

Being nominated for Australian of the Year is one of the highest honors an Australian citizen can receive. Donna Stolzenberg, a proud Ngatjumay and Mirning woman, is Victoria’s Australian of the Year for 2021. Donna’s journey began in 2015 when she had the idea to hand out 50 sleeping bags to homeless people to make their lives just that little bit more comfortable.

As someone with the experience of overcoming the hardship and disadvantage caused by homelessness, Donna has insights into the issues that people in this situation are faced with, along with empathy and compassion for their plight. Handing out sleeping bags soon evolved into bigger and better things, and eventually led to Donna founding the National Homeless Collective.

lady with shoulder length brown hair smiling, blue background
Donna Stolzenberg — 2021 Australian of the Year, Victoria. (Image: Australia Day Victoria via YouTube)

The NHC now has a total of seven major projects:

  • The Kala Space
  • Sisters in Safe Housing
  • The Period Project
  • The School Project
  • Sleeping Bags For the Homeless
  • The Plate Up Project
  • Black Packs 

The Period Project is all about getting sanitary products to those who are sleeping rough. This particular project has expanded beyond Melbourne and now includes the Melbourne Period Project, Essentials 4 Women SA, Essentials for Woman of Perth, Brisbane Period Project, Sydney Period Project, Geelong Period Project, Murray Region Period Project, Gippsland Period Project, Darwin Period Project, and Secret Women’s Business, which is focused on getting these vital supplies to women in need who are living in remote communities. 

The Kala Space is an opportunity shop located in Brunswick that employs women who are homeless, providing them with vital employment experience. Sisters in Safe Housing operates in partnership with the ANZ Bank and provides women who are fleeing domestic violence with funds to pay a deposit and rent on a property straight away, with no waiting period. This means that these women and their children aren’t forced to live in their cars or be crowded into a single motel room, and instead, can obtain appropriate and stable accommodation almost overnight. 

Doll looking a bit unkept in an abandoned house.
The School Project is an initiative that helps children attend school when their mother is facing homelessness. (Image: Pixabay / CC0)

The School Project is aimed at supporting the children of homeless women so they can attend school. Often, living in a car or sleeping rough means that these children don’t have the necessary supplies to continue their education. Donna strongly believes that education is a right and not a privilege, so this is a particular passion for her. The Black Pack is a back pack with enough personal hygiene products to last a homeless person for a week: period products, toothpaste and a toothbrush, soap, shampoo and conditioner. Donna understands that feeling fresh and clean can be a major boost to someone’s self-esteem.

In partnership with Launch Housing, Donna started the Plate Up Project. She understands that the experience of being homeless can result in a disconnection from food. Often, such people are only eating what they’ve been given or can afford to buy. Opportunities to prepare a meal from scratch are almost non-existent. Residents at Launch Housing are given the use of the commercial kitchen where they receive chef training in preparing meals together. This was another benefit that Donna had in mind — the chance to connect with others. Being homeless is an isolating and often incredibly lonely experience, and cooking together is a great way to build new friendships.

cheerful lady serves homeless man a plate of food
Donna realized many homeless people have a disconnection to food. Plate Up Project brings connection. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Monkey Business Images)

As if all of that wasn’t enough work, Donna has also met with the Australian National Skills Commission in an effort to initiate change in the employment landscape that will see job opportunities for those who are experiencing housing insecurity. Donna believes that there needs to be space made in the workplace for those who can’t adhere to rigid start and finish times. As she so rightly points out, there are many important tasks in all areas of employment that are not time or mission critical. These positions could all be filled by at-risk employees. The benefits of this would be enormous, as it would be life-changing for the person in the role, as well as giving the employer a new understanding of what is possible. This could lead to greater innovation and a whole new way of approaching the way we employ people. 

Donna’s compassion, commitment, and tireless hard work have made a difference for countless Australians in almost every state and territory. She is unique in her approach where she understands the need for immediate action in the short term, i.e., sleeping bags, the Black Pack, etc., while at the same time being focused on making long-term, permanent changes in these people’s lives with projects like the Kala Space and the Plate Up Project. Her passion and dedication make Donna a very worthy recipient of the Victorian Australian of the Year award. 

If you would like to donate to any of these projects, you can do so here.

Here are the all the Award nominees:

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