Fire of community pride burns in hearts of volunteers, advocates

RECOGNITION: Queen's Birthday Honour recipients (clockwise from left) Ross Williams, Leanne Barnes, David Papps, Robert Thatcher and Chris Sparks.
RECOGNITION: Queen's Birthday Honour recipients (clockwise from left) Ross Williams, Leanne Barnes, David Papps, Robert Thatcher and Chris Sparks.

From an octogenarian volunteer firefighter to a water polo player and coach instrumental in getting the women's sport recognised at Olympic level, this year's Bega Valley Queen's Birthday Honours recipients are a wonderfully diverse bunch.

In the annual honours list revealed on Monday, the Bega Valley is celebrating recipients of three Medals of the Order of Australia (OAM), a Fire Service Medal (FSM), and a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

And while their efforts transcend village borders, Kalaru and Jellat can feel rightly proud in claiming three of those five as their own.

Chris Sparks OAM, Ross Williams OAM and Robbie Thatcher FSM were named in the 2019 honour roll, along with Bega Valley Shire Council general manager Leanne Barnes OAM, from Merimbula, and Tathra's David Papps AM.

They've been recognised for their service to, variously, the community, to people with disability, to the environment and conservation, and to water polo.

Chris Sparks OAM (right, with Ron Finneran)

Chris Sparks OAM (right, with Ron Finneran)

Chris Sparks OAM

Being wheelchair bound has never stopped Chris Sparks in his tracks.

From elite sportsman, Olympic gold-winning basketballer, world traveller, sports commentator, motivational speaker, to self-confessed computer geek running successful multinational companies, it seems there isn't anything the NSW Physical Disability Council's president can't do.

"That's what it's all about isn't it? Having the guts to grab an opportunity and seize the day," Mr Sparks, of Kalaru, said.

"Somewhere along the line somebody has noted the work I have done and thought it worthy of recognition.

"I don't think it is. But I feel graciously humbled and am grateful of those that think it is."

Ross Williams OAM

Ross Williams OAM

Ross Williams OAM

Ross Williams has been recognised for his service to the community through multiple social welfare organisations.

"It was a surprise, a very pleasant surprise," the Kalaru resident said.

"If the award is a recognition of my work and it will encourage others, then I'm very happy to receive it," the Kalaru resident said.

A man who describes himself as a social entrepreneur, Mr Williams has a long list of achievements.

He is the founding chairman of the Reaching Out Foundation, director of the Bridget McPherson Foundation, a Rotary Club of Merimbula member, Merimbula branch of ANZ Bank founder, works with the Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to the Bega Valley Shire, and is a former deputy chairman of Imlay Nursing Home.

But he described Bega's social cafe Ricky's Place, which he founded, as his proudest achievement.

"If something has been going for 10 years, you're probably doing something right," he said.

"It's run largely by volunteers in the community, many who have no connection with any faith, they're just people of good heart."

Leanne Barnes OAM

Leanne Barnes OAM

Leanne Barnes OAM

Years of dedication and international lobbying regarding women in sport has resulted in an OAM for Merimbula's Leanne Barnes.

While the Bega Valley knows her best as the council's general manager, Ms Barnes is receiving a Queen's Birthday honour for her service to water polo.

She was a state rep and national team water polo player in the late 1970s, state and national coach and manager, and a director of Water Polo Australia as well as chairwoman of the organisation's gender equity committee from 2004-2010. In 2011 she was inducted into the Water Polo Australia Hall of Fame.

Next year will mark 20 years since the women's water polo first entered official Olympic competition - 100 years after the men's event - with Ms Barnes at the forefront in making that happen.

"I'm so excited - it came right out of the blue," Ms Barnes said of her OAM announcement.

"I'm very proud of all the stuff I did with water polo and with women in the sport."

David Papps AM

David Papps AM

David Papps AM

David Papps' final battle before retirement was the hard task of balancing the water needs of the environment with the needs of farmers on the world's second driest continent.

Now retired and living in the small coastal town of Tathra, Mr Papps has been made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his dedication to science, in particular environmental conservation.

He has served as a deputy director general of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and was Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder between 2012 and 2016.

He continues his conservation work as a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

"My career has never been just a job," Mr Papps said.

"People wonder why I'm bothering, but I really care. I will keep going as long as I am making a difference."

Robert Thatcher OAM

Robert Thatcher OAM

Robert Thatcher FSM

Robert Thatcher has been the backbone of the Jellat Jellat Rural Fire Service for the past 19 years in his roles of either captain, president or vice-president.

However "Robbie's" involvement with the brigade spans 61 years and he remains as enthusiastic and committed to the the RFS as he was on the day he joined in 1958.

Only last year at age 82, Robbie was helping to fight the Tathra bushfires.