Aunty Bessie Yarram is a Noongar Elder whose involvement in Aboriginal affairs spans more than three decades. She has given a voice to many Aboriginal people throughout Gippsland and is highly regarded in the fields of justice and community development at a local, state and national level.
She was one of the first Aboriginal students at the local state school
One of 7 children, Bessie was born in 1938 on an Aboriginal mission at Gnowangerup in Western Australia. Her mother, Ruth Woods, was a Noongar woman and her father Thomas Hardy was an Englishman. Bessie was close to her siblings and they enjoyed a childhood of homemade board games, music and holidays to Bremer Bay. However, the family was not spared the racism of the day. Incidents where Bessie's mother was denied entry to businesses and hospitals left their mark.
Bessie's awareness of the negative attitudes towards Aboriginal people increased while attending the local state school, where she was one of the first Aboriginal students. She completed her secondary education at a boarding school in Perth, where she excelled at sport, including hockey. Bessie went on to train as a nurse and worked at several hospitals in the city.
Bessie and Noel devoted themselves to helping the local community
In 1957 Bessie married Noel Yarram, also of the Noongar nation. They would go on to have 6 children together. Noel joined the army and was posted to Malaya in 1958. Bessie accompanied her husband and for 2 years used her nursing skills as a volunteer for the Red Cross. After briefly returning to Western Australia, the family relocated to the Puckapunyal army base in central Victoria, where they lived for 20 years. During this time, Bessie became a kindergarten assistant.
At the end of the 1970s, the family settled in Sale, where Bessie and Noel quickly devoted themselves to helping the local community. A back injury forced Bessie to give up kindergarten work and she turned to volunteering, donating her time to organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society. She and Noel also provided a loving home to vulnerable young people in the region, welcoming many into their ever-growing family.
Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation
In 1988 Bessie joined one of the first Aboriginal Community Justice Panels in the state and thereafter was on call 24 hours a day to assist Aboriginal people taken into police custody. Sadly, the following year saw the sudden passing of Noel. Bessie returned to work to support her children and extended family. She took a job at the Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-operative, where she helped implement successful projects, including employment initiatives, a long-running annual camp for Elders and seniors, and the Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place in Bairnsdale.
Before he passed away, Noel had begun planning for an Aboriginal corporation in Sale. Together with her family and other community members, Bessie set out to realise her husband's vision. Years of hard work followed, resulting in the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation. It grew from a makeshift office in a bedroom to become an incorporated organisation in 1992. Bessie was influential in securing funding for Ramahyuck and has held various positions on the board over the years. Today the corporation provides health and community services across Gippsland and employs over 130 people.
Aunty Bessie is considered indispensable
As a long-time member of the Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee for Gippsland, Aunty Bessie is considered indispensable. Currently serving her third term as Chairperson, her leadership has positioned her as a trusted intermediary between communities and policymakers. Aunty Bessie has sat as an Elder on the Koori Court since its establishment and successfully lobbied to bring the Koori Children's Court to Bairnsdale and Morwell.
It was Bessie's passionate advocacy that won support for the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place in Yarram, which opened in 2008, and runs holistic programs for Aboriginal men who have been given community correction orders. Aunty Bessie also volunteers at the Fulham Correctional Centre, having been a cultural advisor during its development. Considered a mother figure, she has had a positive influence on many of the men serving time at the centre. It complements her ongoing efforts to build cultural awareness within the police and other social services.
Her reputation for pragmatism and straight talking has seen her opinion sought by service providers, government agencies and ministers
During her 3 year tenure as Chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Home and Community Care Reference Group, Bessie oversaw the development of training tools covering areas such as financial management, dementia and incontinence. For many years, her reputation for pragmatism and straight talking has seen her opinion sought by service providers, government agencies and ministers.
This has resulted in contributions to numerous committees, including Ministerial Advisory Committees for seniors and dementia, the Commonwealth Games Seniors Working Group, the Victorian Government's Aboriginal Justice Forum, the East Gippsland Aboriginal Arts Corporation and the Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group in Sale.
In 2001 Aunty Bessie was awarded a Centenary Medal. In 2008 she was inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women and has since been invited to join the selection panel. In addition, she has received several local community awards. Bessie is a treasured source of wisdom and common sense to her close-knit family, including her seven grandchildren.
Despite several attempts to retire and indulge her love of gardening, Aunty Bessie shows no signs of slowing down. As committed as ever to her people and to Gippsland, she will continue to help others just as others will undoubtedly continue to value her help.
Reviewed 30 September 2019