THE HUMBLE heroes working tirelessly across the Tamworth region to make their communities better, stronger and more connected have had the attention turned on them for a change.
The Leader sat down with this year's winners of the prestigious Australia Day awards from every corner ofthe region to find out what makes them tick and what keeps the passion alive, despite setbacks.
COUNTLESS hours spent volunteering in the Tamworth community have brought more meaning to Denise Sullivan than she could ever give back in time.
Mrs Sullivan's family has called the city home for more than four decades and she's been tirelessly involved in charities and groups since she retired from working with primary school children living with disabilities.
She donates time to organisations like her church, the Vinnies store on Duri Road, Meals on Wheels and the Lions Club she founded.
"I get a lot more out of it than what I give ... it keeps me going because I just like helping people," she said.
She said she's made friends with the other volunteers and would encourage young people to put their hands up to help charities as they call for more people.
Mrs Sullivan said she kept busy through COVID but it had been a difficult time for some, especially the elderly or ill through Meals on Wheels and those doing it tough who came to see her at Vinnies.
"People still need to be helped," she said. "A smile does more for the world than anything else."
Mrs Sullivan said she was delighted to be receiving an Order of Australia Medal.
Dr Ramin Samali has never given up the fight to give regional communities the healthcare they deserve.
The urologist set up shop in Tamworth more than 18 years ago and spent 12 of those grinding away on his own.
Despite the hard work, he continued to push and advocate to make things better.
"I feel I have made a difference," he said. "The idea was to basically bring urology up to standard."
Dr Samali helped bring life-changing robotic surgery to the region four years ago, in what he believes was a first for a rural area.
"To bring that here it was a bit of an effort, but we managed to do that and it's been successful and has been going along strongly for the past few years," he said.
Dr Samali said he was humbled to receive an Order of Australia Medal for service to medicine.
"We are hoping for the upgrading of services to keep up with the cutting edge of the technology ... for the area not to fall behind," he said.
A PASSIONATE advocate for Aboriginal health services in rural areas, Cheryl Porter has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal.
The long-time Quirindi local has served as CEO of the Walhallow Aboriginal Corporation Health Program for 30 years.
She has a history of advocating for Indigenous communities communities in Caroona, Quirindi and Tamworth and hopes the award will "open more doors" when it comes to securing funding.
"It's not easy working in Aboriginal health but you have your little moments," she said. "It's all I know."
Ms Porter said she's proud GP clinics at Quirindi and Coledale have been able to attract good doctors, something that isn't easy in rural areas.
"Growing up and seeing how we didn't have access to a lot of medical care and support is why I'm passionate about it," she said.
Over the past year, vaccinating the Indigenous community has been Walhallow's focus as they ran their own clinics at the local RSL and worked with NSW Health to vaccinate anyone and everyone.
"Now we've moved on to booster shots," she said.
WHEN Spring Ridge's Brian McKenzie ran to help firefighters stop a blaze on his birthday he never expected it to turn into a lifelong career.
Mr McKenzie has dedicated the past 45 years to saving homes and lives and training the next generation of firefighters with the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS).
Despite describing his work as a "hobby", Mr McKenzie has held several major roles in different locations.
The jack-of-all-trades worked in aviation during major fire events, including the horror 2019 and 2020 season.
Mr McKenzie is known for his easy-going nature that helps keep everyone calm in high pressure situations.
"You just do what you've got to do and keep the crews going," he said.
He lends his experience and expertise to mentoring and training others - including Deputy Commissioner Peter McKechnie himself from "way back".
Having only moved to Spring Ridge in July Mr McKenzie said he was keen to assist the local fire service "in any capacity".
He has been honoured with the Australian Fire Service Medal and said it will sit pride of place among other impressive accolades on his mantlepiece.
TENTERFIELD locals have had a tough few years battling drought, fires and COVID, but Noelene Hyde has played a crucial role.
Her efforts have been celebrated with a public service award as part of the Australia Day honours.
Ms Hyde has worked at Tenterfield Shire Council since 2006 and holds a communications role.
She said the recognition was an honour.
"For me it was a bit humbling ... that came off the back of some really hard years," she said.
Ms Hyde said she felt proud she could provide information to her community when they needed it most.
"I did communications which was getting information out to the community, which made such a huge difference because the community can be very critical if they don't know what's going on," she said.
Her public service experience goes back well beyond her time in Tenterfield - she first joined the Forestry Commission in Glen Innes in 1973, before moving to Perth, Belmont and then Armadale.
She is now able to sit back and relax having retired in May last year, but will able to reflect fondly upon her career.
Train fanatic Otway 'Geoff' Benson has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal.
The Tenterfield grazier rekindled a life-long love for locomotives after retiring from life on the land.
After joining Tenterfield Railway Preservation Society in 2002, he helped implement a program to rejuvenate the landmark museum and served as president from 2004 to 2016.
Daughter Fiona James said the family was "elated" for him.
"He doesn't seek out acknowledgement or recognition," she said. "Dad does epitomise the values and the spirit of the bush community with all his volunteering."
Mrs James said he led a group of volunteers that turned the museum into one of the town's most impressive tourist attractions.
"He acquired a couple of new steam engines and carriages and storage carriages and facilities to refurbish and upkeep the whole Tenterfield railway station," she said.
Mr Benson was on the Tenterfield Show Society as well.
He now lives with dementia in an aged care home, which will hold a morning tea in celebration.
One of the New England Regional Art Museum's (NERAM) best friends has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal for service to the arts.
Patricia Elkin was a founding member of the Packsaddle Fundraising Committee at the NERAM 36 years ago.
Mrs Elkin said promoting Australian artists is what inspired her to start the annual 'Packsaddle' fundraising exhibition, which shows more than 100 artworks across two weeks.
"Back then, most people ... would want a painting on their wall and would look for a prominent European or English painter and most likely a buy a copy," Mrs Elkin said.
"I found that Australian artists were being neglected and I wanted to put them into the forefront and get them some money."
An artist all of her life, Mrs Elkin still paints, just not every day as she used to.
"Art is very important," she said.
"It's all around you, so you have to acknowledge it."
At 97 years old, Mrs Elkin only retired from volunteering three years ago.
Armidale's Donald Hewitt has won the Order of Australia Medal for service to the community.
A co-founder of Freeman House 42 years ago, with more than five decades of membership with St Vincent de Paul, Mr Hewitt still volunteers his services.
Freeman House is a rehabilitation centre offering crisis accommodation to the homeless. In the late 1970s, Mr Hewitt and other volunteers noticed the growing issue of people living rough.
"At that time, the police used to go around and collect the alcoholics and put them in cells because there was nowhere else for them to go and that was a terrible thing," Mr Hewitt said.
He bought a guesthouse where men could stay, have a shower, be clothed, fed and counselled. He said he learnt skills and became a "handyman" for Vinnies.
Mr Hewitt said his real social work was visiting people in their homes.
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