TWO community stalwarts have been named in the 2021 Victorian Senior of the Year Awards.
He may have been named one of the most outstanding senior citizens in the state, but Peek Whurrong Elder Uncle Locky Eccles says age is just a number.
"I feel 19 not 69," he said with a laugh. "I feel very humbled by the nomination."
The First Nations Elder received the 2021 Healthy and Active Living Award for his intergenerational leadership, sharing language, culture and his passion for sport with the community.
Uncle Locky has been involved in numerous Indigenous and non-indigenous activities and programs such as supporting the region's young people on their pathway from education to work in the field, as well as in local sport as a football umpire.
He's been praised for his work on the Indigenous language program with south-west kindergartens and schools, aimed at reviving the Peek Whurrong language.
"We're reawakening our languages, they've been sleeping and it brings a big part of our culture back together. It's something that has been missing in our culture."
Uncle Locky started the language program seven years ago and said he's "proud" of the positive response from the community.
"It's just wonderful," he said. "Schools teach other languages like Indonesian and Japanese... why not teach the language of First Nations people.
"It's really got momentum."
A long-time member of the Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (LAECG) in Warrnambool and Framlingham, he has become a champion for kindergarten teachers and young children over many years; introducing words, phrases, greetings and the many nuances of his language into early years programs, which has grown and is now replicated in primary and secondary school settings under his guardianship.
"His unique way of engaging children has ensured that the program has been successfully delivered to thousands of children," Warrnambool City Council early years learning service manager Ebony Grieve said.
Uncle Locky has also inspired and mentored other adults to learn the language, whether incidentally alongside him, or through formal training.
The driving force for his volunteering is his commitment to change and achievement for all Aboriginal students, particularly Aboriginal children and youth in the south-west.
In partnership with the Koorie Early Years Network South West, a regional early years cultural and language program is being drawn up that can be delivered to all kindergartens in Warrnambool, Moyne, Corangamite, Southern Grampians and Glenelg.
Warrnambool City Cr Vicki Jellie said Uncle Locky is a greatly respected Aboriginal Elder and community member.
"Uncle Locky toils away quietly without seeking recognition, instead working for the good of his own mob and the entire community," she said.
He has been involved in community sport for 60 years as a football umpire.
In that role, Uncle Locky is a role model and inspiration to generations of young players, both Indigenous and non-indigenous, Ms Grieve said.
"You will also find him out on a cliff top or wild beach mentoring younger people in specialist cultural programs.
"His name is synonymous with Aboriginal culture, ceremony and language in south-west region and he is highly respected for his work in building relationships towards reconciliation, supporting other's stories in the community and the message that delivers about positive relationships and trust.
"This contribution to the early year's community is a lasting legacy."
Timboon's John Fox received a COTA Senior Achiever Award for his volunteer work in the south-west.
Mr Fox is a very active volunteer across a range of organisations and services in the Timboon area, and was nominated by Timboon District Health Service after he stepped up through COVID to ensure the continuation of services.
As a Meals on Wheels volunteer he took on the shifts of older colleagues at that time, ensuring that isolated community members were supported with a chat and a smile. He is is also a community transport volunteer, responding to last minute requests to provide transport for medical appointments.
"I'm very happy about it, I didn't really expect it but accepted the award graciously," Mr Fox said.
He acknowledges a personal journey from severe depression to recovery through his community volunteering and participation.
"Around three years ago I had a bit of trouble with my mental health, I was going to too many funerals and a few things happened," he said.
"A lot of people helped me through it, I did a lot myself too.
"Volunteering helped me get out of depression, I get to see people I've known for years and help them out or talk to them.
"It helped me as well."
The now 70-year-old has lived in Timboon his whole life.
He left school at 15 to work on the family farm in Camperdown and said his parents would have been proud to hear of his award.
Mr Fox was nominated by Sabine McKenzie and Fiona Hanel at Timboon District Health Service.
"John has been volunteering for us for a little while now, he went through a period of depression and so he started volunteering with us to give him purpose and help out," Ms McKenzie said.
"When COVID-19 happened volunteers aged 70 and over had to be put on inactive because they were a vulnerable group and John jumped in.
"He is just so lovely, generous and kind-hearted and he's a wonderful human being.
"His volunteering now only helped the community and us, but also helped him to have a purpose in life in helping others."
The Victorian Senior of the Year Awards are presented annually as part of the Victorian Seniors Festival. Award recipients will be celebrated in person with a ceremony at Government House in early 2022.
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