Aunty Melva OAM gets her reward

By Charmayne Allison

ECHUCA’S Aunty Melva Johnson has been recognised for her service to the Victorian indigenous community, awarded a Medal for the Order of Australia.

For almost 60 years, the local octogenarian has campaigned tirelessly to see greater equality in health, housing, education, justice, childcare and employment for Aboriginals, particularly in Echuca.

And while she wasn’t well enough to accept the award in person on Australia Day, Aunty Melva’s granddaughter Teresa Edwards said her Nan was blown away to receive it.

“When she found out someone had just nominated her, she was overwhelmed. She said, ‘It’s a lovely thought, but I’m not gonna get it’,” Teresa said. “When I told her she’d been awarded the OAM she cried. She was amazed by the recognition, even after all she’s done.

“When we mention it, even now, she’s still stunned.”

Born on Cummeragunja Mission in 1934, Aunty Melva was just five when her family joined in a mass ‘walk-off’ to protest its appalling conditions (which happened 80 years ago today).

After settling in a protest camp on the banks of the Goulburn near Mooroopna, her family eventually set up house in Mooroopna.

Leaving school at 13, Aunty Melva moved to Melbourne at 15 to find work before returning north to settle in Echuca with her new husband Kevin when she was 21.

It was during these years she became keenly aware of the prejudices towards Aboriginals at the time.

But it was being forced to give birth to two of her four children on the veranda of Echuca hospital that really put her on the frontlines.

In 1974, Aunty Melva joined a dedicated group of community women to found the Echuca Aboriginal Co-operative – today known as Njernda Aboriginal Corporation.

Acting in the Co-op’s name, Aunty Melva began pushing for recognition and support from local council, health professionals and the education department. She influenced policy change, campaigning tirelessly for funding and in the 1980s helped secure funds to buy a property for a women and children’s safe house.

Employed as co-ordinator, Aunty Melva saw the building offer a range of specialist health services in the region for the first time.

For 15 years she ran a bingo night, the proceeds going towards school books, lunches and equipment for children in need. At the time, only two Aboriginal children were allowed in the Echuca kinder a year.

“It was just pure racism, it was terrible in Echuca in those days,” Aunty Melva said.

“WE WANTED our own childcare centre. So we went to Melbourne and fought for funding and, eventually, it was granted.”

By the time her second child was old enough to go to kinder, a multifunctional Aboriginal childcare centre – now Berrimba Childcare – had been established here.

Since the centre opened, more than 70 local Aboriginal children have gone on to complete their VCE.

The previous total had been zero.

With achievements like these, it’s no wonder Aunty Melva (who only retired last year) has been celebrated through the years, inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2002 and becoming the first Aboriginal to receive the Bishop Noel Daly Award for leadership in Catholic education in 2011.

And now, the OAM.

“It’s been very emotional for us,” Teresa said

“It shows how important it is for us to recognise the elders in our community for the things they’ve achieved and how they’ve paved the way for us.

‘‘And not just indigenous elders, but all elders.

“Because it won’t take just us to bridge the gap.

‘‘We all need to work together to move forward.

‘‘There’s a long way to go, but we’re slowly taking steps forward.

“And we’re definitely enjoying a brighter future thanks to what Nan has done.”