It’s little wonder Canberra is often considered the happiest city in the country when we look at the activism, innovation and kindness of locals.
This year’s ACT Australian of the Year nominees are no exception.
The 16 nominees across four categories are musicians, activists, scientists and more. Some have become household names, while others rarely take the spotlight.
Region spoke to one exceptional ACT nominee from each category.
Local Hero Gaurav (Garry) Malhotra’s journey began on Facebook in August 2021.
While he was in hospital recovering from an operation, he made a post offering to deliver free meals to Canberrans during ACT lockdown. The initiative exceeded the expectations of Mr Malhotra’s family-run operation nearly immediately – they delivered more than 1200 meals to doorsteps by the end of their first day.
As they did not initially accept donations, Mr Malhotra used $60,000 of his own savings to keep the operation afloat. Throughout the first month of lockdown, thousands of meals continued to be made by a team of 10 to 15 people who worked from 6 am to 8 pm daily to meet the demand.
Since then, ‘Helping Hands’ has established a food preparation training facility.
The facility has allowed the charity to expand its reach.
“People can walk in and have free meals,” Mr Malhotra said. “There are shower facilities too.”
They have plans to expand their work to include mental health and well-being services and teaching technology to senior citizens.
He discovered he was nominated yesterday morning (27 October).
“Being nominated [means] more responsibility,” he said.
“I have more responsibility to look after my Canberrans here. I want to make sure nobody sleeps hungry and everybody has a roof over their head.”
Senior Australian of the Year nominee Mohammed Ali holds a similar dream for Canberrans.
He launched HelpingACT in 2018 to help people in need after retiring from a career as a biochemist and university lecturer.
HelpingACT provides food and household items to vulnerable Canberrans, including migrants and refugees, international students, domestic violence survivors and people with disabilities. They are also looking to expand to a dental assistance program for homeless people in the near future.
The organisation was particularly active across Canberra during the Black Summer bushfires, donating goods to fire-affected areas and preparing meals for families at evacuation centres.
On finding out about his nomination, he said, “the first reaction was disbelief, utter disbelief”.
“I must admit I am feeling overwhelmed and over the moon and beyond,” he said. “Another feeling is to do more and more as there is so much to do.
“One in ten Canberrans need food assistance … but nine others out of ten can help this one vulnerable Canberran”, Mr Ali continued.
“The day is not too far when no one will sleep hungry in Canberra.”
Australian of the Year nominee Mikaela Jade, a Cabrogal woman, founded Indigital in 2014 with a mission to embed Indigenous stories and histories into augmented reality (AR) and to provide digital skills training for Indigenous people. The training provided by Indigital includes AI, machine learning, geospatial technologies and the internet of things.
Indigital’s flagship program is Indigital Schools, where students obtain cultural knowledge and history from Indigenous elders while learning digital skills in various technologies. Indigital’s general training and schools program aim to “address the digital divide” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
An Indigital spokesperson said they employ 10 staff, of whom 60 per cent are Indigenous and 80 per cent are female, adding, “it’s a huge achievement to get to where we are today”.
Young Australian of the Year nominee Camille Schloeffel is the founder and director of The STOP Campaign, a not-for-profit organisation addressing sexual violence in tertiary institutions.
Founded in 2018, the campaign began with a number of ‘zine’ projects and a social media presence based around education on sexual violence.
Earlier this year, the campaign launched The Safe Response Toolkit, a one-stop resource for victim-survivors of sexual violence and their supporters. The toolkit includes information on sexual violence responses and accessing local support and has been utilised by the ACT Government.
Ms Schloeffel was awarded the Peter Mitchell Churchill Fellowship in 2020 to research ways activists and universities can work together to prevent sexual violence on campus and was a finalist for 2022 ACT Woman of the Year.
“It’s really overwhelming to be honest,” Ms Schloeffel said on her nomination.
“There’s lots of other people doing amazing things and it can be confronting … because of the spotlight it puts you under.”
As activists working to better their communities, she said, “we don’t seek the spotlight; we do the work”.
The 2023 ACT award nominees are:
ACT Australian of the Year
Mikaela Jade – Founder, Indigital (Phillip)
Scott Wallis – Founder, Equatorial Launch Australia, Arnhem Space Centre (Garran)
Olympia Yarger – Insect farming pioneer and founder, Goterra (Canberra)
Heidi Yates – Human rights lawyer and community advocate (Canberra).
ACT Senior Australian of the Year
Mohammed Ali – Founder and president, HelpingACT (Franklin)
Professor Tom Calma AO – Human rights and social justice advocate, consultant and volunteer (Chapman)
Robert Cook – ACT Children’s Court Magistrate and Warrumbul Court Magistrate (Canberra)
Brian Triglone OAM – Founder and conductor, Alchemy Chorus (Torrens).
ACT Young Australian of the Year
Bryce Cronin – Engineer, designer and founder, Access3D (Belconnen)
Kofi Owusu-Ansah – Award-winning performer and songwriter (Canberra)
Camille Schloeffel – Founder, The Stop Campaign (Ainslie)
Hillary Swann – Teacher and founder, EMPOWER (Rivett).
ACT Local Hero
Nazmul Hasan – Multicultural community champion (Holder)
Gaurav Malhotra – Founder, Garry Malhotra – Ken Behrens Helping Hands (Denman Prospect)
Carol Mead – Founder, Sew For Change (Gordon)
Dr Shamaruh Mirza – Scientist and co-founder, SiTara’s Story (Waramanga).
The 2023 ACT Awards are held on 9 November. The 32 national finalists will go to the Australian of the Year Awards in January.