As I write this message, the Christmas tree is up, Christmas carols are playing in every store and my two children are asking me every single day, ‘how many days until Christmas?’
But before we say farewell to 2023, I want to take this opportunity to look back on our many achievements this year and thank everyone who made them happen: our members, volunteers, staff, directors and supporters.
If I were to sum up 2023 in just three words, it would be connection, collaboration and clarity.
It was a year that saw our members come together often and saw our organisation deepen relationships within the veteran community. This year also continued to build from the firm foundations laid by many incredible women over many years to bring the gift of this organisation to many many more widows and veteran families out there we don’t yet know.
There are many heart-warming and honourable parts to my role as CEO of AWWNSW, but nothing is as beautiful as watching our community come together and support one another. You give each other the gift of friendship, of support and connection. Things that we simply cannot live long and fulfilled lives without.
From regular Guild and Social clubs meetings to commemorations, ANZAC Field of Remembrance, AGM and War Widows Day, witnessing the way you support each other is truly special.
One of my fondest memories of the year was during Vietnam Veterans Day Commemoration at the Cenotaph in Martin Place. I was honoured to witness the congregation standing in honour of around 50 war widows who stood together, with strength and in silence, to lay a rose for their beloved late-husband. Congratulations to Di Vogt and Wendy McKeon who ensured that war widows were part of this historical commemoration and were able to personally honoured their loved ones.
This year also saw our Guild and Social clubs in full swing. You celebrated birthdays, marked special milestones and met regularly to provide each other with friendship and support. We are pleased to say that in 2023 we supported 53 clubs across NSW to deliver monthly meetings. We also loved engaging with you all at these gatherings with Directors, staff and State President, Queen Dunbar, visited more than 40 of our Guild and Social clubs. I know how much they enjoy spending time with you, as well as hearing your stories and struggles. Meeting you face-to-face reinforced to them why our work is so important.
This year saw us launch our new social connection program: ‘Our Space’. I’m particularly pleased and proud of this new program. It is a growing community of partners, war widows and families of veterans. We’ve held in-person and online events, including the Our Space Sydney launch at the Cronulla RSL in September and our webinar ‘Let’s talk about grief and loss’ earlier this month.
This program allows us to extend our social support to people who do not meet the criteria for such support elsewhere. We are stepping up to fill a fundamental gap in the veteran support system. This is something we should all be proud of.
This year also saw us deepen relationships with other organisations within the veteran community. The partnership I am most proud of is our organisation partnering with Legacy Sydney to jointly deliver War Widows Day. Together, we were able to reach out to 4,500 war widows and organise an unforgettable day for many of them. Together, we were able to deliver a very public service honouring war widows and widowers, past and present in the heart of Sydney.
I am also proud that we supported RSL ACT in the organisation the inaugural ACT Veterans and Family Expo in November. These partnerships are not only essential, but they are also symbolic of how our community works together. It is essential for organisations supporting veterans and their families to work hand in hand for the greater good of our community.
With this idea in mind, we have been very involved in the work happening on the design of a peak body for the veteran sector. The work has been positive, and the peak body offers opportunities for us to increase the value of our work, exposure and profile in the veteran community.
I was also incredibly honoured this year to be selected as one of two Ferris Family Fellowship winners. The Fellowship facilitated my attendance a course in non-for-profit management at the Harvard Business School in Boston. I was also able to use the opportunity and met with similar organisations to ours while I was in the United States, including National Military Families Association, Military Families Advisory Network, Blue Star Families, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and Fisher House Foundation.
The number one lesson I learnt from meeting these organisations was how to effectively collaborate for collective impact.
We know Australian veterans and their families are better off when the many threads of the veteran community are tightly woven together. We will continue to collaborate and partner with other organisations in the veteran community, so we can deliver better support and services to war widows and the families of veterans.
The course I attended at Harvard taught me many lessons. I came back from the United States with a clear idea and plan about how best to organise ourselves, our strategy and our resources to ensure our growth and sustainability.
I’ve also had countless conversations with people in the veteran community this year who have provided clarity around our advocacy platform, our Royal Commission Submission and in the feedback and views I share on their behalf at consultative forums. We also spent a lot of time this year providing clarity around our future, our plans and operations.
Whether it be through our visits to clubs, consultative workshops and focus groups, the AGM or through the Digest we have been focused on providing you with the information you need and answering your questions.
One of the biggest projects in this area this year was the branding consultation where more than 400 of you shared your views. This consultation provided the Board with the clarity it needed to make the tough decision about our brand and to set the conditions for the organisation’s long term success and sustainability.
We also went back to our history and founding to clarify the original vision of Jessie Vasey to help us better understand the pathway forward. We were very taken by what she wrote more than 60 years ago when she shared her concerns about becoming an “older women’s group” and wanted to see us become an “inclusive group”.
As an organisation, our enduring vision is that no family member of a veteran ought to be disadvantaged or left behind because of their loved one’s service.
It became crystal clear this year how our organisation and brand must evolve to best meet your needs and the needs of our growing community.
I’ve been with the organisation for three years now and CEO for 2 and a half years. When I look back at the organisation when I started and compare it to where it is now, it is a very different place. We have achieved a lot over this time and I believe we are a much stronger place and well positioned to continue our improvement.
One of the biggest things we hope to achieve next calendar year is getting War Widows Day recognised nationally. We also look forward to introducing our new brand and working with you to ensure a supported transition.
As I look toward 2024, I see so much opportunity and that is exciting for the team and I. Opportunity to improve what we currently do, improve how we do it and leverage everything we have learned over the last 77 years to provide support, connection and empowerment to the families of our veterans.
We achieve so much together here at AWWNSW, and I’m so grateful not only for the support of our talented staff, volunteers and directors but also their commitment to you because, without that, we wouldn’t be where we are.
I am also immensely grateful for all our wonderful members who make this organisation what it is. I’m also very grateful to our donors, stakeholders and supporters for ensuring this important organisation can continue its work and make positive impacts in the lives of war widows and veteran families.
I know this time of year can be difficult for many of you as you reflect and remember those people who are no longer with us, including some of our beautiful members we said goodbye to throughout the year.
Know that you are not alone at this time, look after yourself and reach out for help and support if you even think for a minute, you might need it. I hope you find some time to relax and find joy this holiday season and I look forward to seeing many of you throughout 2024.
Please note, that the office will be closed from 22 December 2023 and will reopen on 2 January 2024. During that time, if you need support and/ or assistance in managing difficult emotions, please call Open Arms on 1800 011 046, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.