We hear a lot of chatter about amazing high profile women around International Women’s Day, which is happening this Friday March 8, but we don’t tend to celebrate those incredible women who are doing amazing things closer to home.
To mark this celebration of females and the fight towards gender equality, we meet 10 women who have overcome extraordinary circumstances.
We chat to homegrown hero Sophie Delezio, a firefighter, two gorgeous “cuddle nurses” and the woman dubbed “Mother of the Year”, plus many more.
Read their inspiring stories below.
As Sophie Delezio attended her Year 12 formal last year, it was a milestone many never thought she’d come to enjoy.
“It was the best time of my life so far!” the 17-year-old said of the occasion.
All of Australia has watched brave Sophie grow up.
We remember her as the bandaged little girl who beat the odds in December 2003 when a car crashed into her Sydney childcare centre and burst into flames on top of her, resulting in burns to 85 per cent of her body.
Then, still in and out of intensive care, she was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing in May 2006 and left with bleeding on her brain and other trauma.
But Sophie has always soldiered on and never says, “What if?”
“In my mind I’m not ‘Sophie the girl with no legs’, but someone completely normal,” she explains.
Now she’s training and competing in rowing regattas and mulling over university plans in the UK.
“Going to my formal wasn’t just about the end of school but a launchpad into the world. It means I’ve made it here,” says the plucky teen.
Black Saturday hero
Selfless Helen Kenney wasn’t supposed to be in St Andrews, Victoria, on Black Saturday.
Her daughter Kate was getting married two weeks later and she’d flown from Sydney that morning so they could spend the day together finalising her wedding plans.
By the afternoon of February 7, 2009, the 63-year-old realised St Andrews was at the mercy of a raging bushfire.
Helen didn’t think twice about putting her life in jeopardy to save locals in her community.
“We couldn’t get to some places because people had perished trying to escape the fire and police had closed off parts of the road,” remembers Helen, who spent three days and nights fighting the flames.
“We were putting out spot fires, checking on homes, clearing driveways and water tanks and evacuating people.”
Helen says the scars of that day remain. Her family has battled nightmares and PTSD. The flames came within 300 metres of her own home, but leaving never crossed her mind.
“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” she says.
Miracle surrogate baby
When Kristy and Craig Darken welcomed their beautiful son Henry into the world, it was a dream come true, especially as the NSW couple had spent almost eight years – and about $100,000 – trying to start a family.
Their hopes of having a baby finally became a reality on February 8, 2018, when Kristy’s sister Rebecca gave birth to their son.
When Kristy, 35, found out she was born without a uterus at 17, she feared she’d never be able to become a mum but she and her husband Craig remained hopefully and decided to undergo IVF.
Hopes were dwindling when Kristy’s selfless sister Rebecca, 31 offered to be their surrogate.
Henry was the result of their 10th and final embryo.
At the birth, Kristy, Craig and Rebecca’s husband James were all by Rebecca’s side.
“As soon as Henry arrived, I had skin-to-skin contact. I held him there for a few minutes and Craig cut the cord,” says Kristy, who will be forever thankful to her sister for giving them the greatest gift of all.
Drover mum fights drought
It’s the bleakest of backdrops and with no money, feed, water or jobs to be had, brave farmer mum Beck Hourigan hit the road last year with her two daughters, Tori, seven, and Sienna, five, and eight horses, 12 dogs and a mob of 900 cattle to survive.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said the 29-year-old from Barraba in drought-affected northern NSW.
“We took a contracted job to move the cattle from Walgett where they no longer had enough pasture to sustain the whole herd. We move them every day along the travelling stock route.”
When Beck took on the job, she and her husband Justin, 35, decided to home-school the kids.
They hit the road with Mum while Justin stayed at home to continue working as a livestock manager. The hard-grafting but happy family are affectionately dubbed “The Drovers”.
“For our girls to experience the worst drought in 50 years, to see the daily struggle, it’s taught them resilience and determination,” says Beck. “What more could we ask for?”
Care home crusader
Charli Darragh adored her mum Marie.
But on May 10, 2014, Marie was murdered by night nurse Megan Haines, who injected the 82-year-old with a lethal dose of insulin after she and two other residents at the St Andrews Village nursing home in Ballina, NSW, complained about her cruel behaviour.
“I urged her to tell the director of nursing and promised I’d complain, too,” says Charli, 60.
On the day she died, Marie and two others bravely lodged their complaints.
The nurse was warned by her supervisor at St Andrews that she faced a disciplinary hearing but that night Haines injected Marie and her friend Isabella with the insulin that killed them.
“I was racked with guilt because I’d told Mum to complain,” admits Charli.
To cope, she’s channelled her energies into helping other vulnerable victims of nursing home abuse.
“I set up Angels For The Elderly Facebook page,” says Charli.
She has been rallying for all nursing homes to have CCTV throughout their facilities and for an improvement in staff-patient ratios.
Her campaign helped pressure the government into holding a royal commission into aged care.
“I’m doing this in Mum’s honour,” says Charli. “I hope she’d be proud.”
Mother of the year
For Noelene Lever, family is everything.
This widowed mum’s love knows no bounds – having raised five children of her own, she’s also been an unofficial foster mum to more than 50 others!
“The kids started bringing their friends home to stay. Some of them didn’t have safe homes to go to, so I told them our door was always open,” say the 78-year-old Sydneysider, who was named Barnardos Mother of the Year in 2018.
“I’d have eight staying at a time and I’d sleep on the couch if the kids needed a big bed. It didn’t bother me – so long as they all had a place to lay their head.”
Having recently retired from her role as an unofficial foster mum, Noelene’s focus is still her family, which includes 30 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandsons!
Now, the invincible mum has an important message to share.
“Love doesn’t cost and the door never closes,” says Noelene.
“Even after they leave, it’s still open.”
Cancer taught me compassion
When Year 7 Sydney schoolgirl Nicole Graney felt a hard lump in her tummy and developed back pain and a urinary tract infection, her mum Karen took her to the doctor.
“An ultrasound and MRI scan showed a mass on my right ovary,” says Nicole, who’s now 20.
At just 12, she had surgery to remove a 20cm solid tumour from her right ovary and fallopian tube. Doctors then confirmed she had ovarian cancer – making her Australia’s youngest ever patient with the condition.
“I had six rounds of chemotherapy straight after surgery,” Nicole recalls. “I’d gone from being energetic and healthy to becoming a sickly ‘cancer kid’.”
Thankfully her treatment was successful and she only needs yearly check-ups.
Despite everything, the true-blue battler says fighting cancer has made her more compassionate and resilient.
“I went through something incredibly tough at a young age, but I’ve come out the other side” says Nicole. “I know how lucky I am to be here.”
When six-year-old Jenna Jones was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, her parents Therese and Brad were told their sprightly daughter could go blind overnight.
The progressive disease damages the cells that sense light, which means the optic nerve is unable to carry vision signals to the brain. It’s a rare genetic condition and there is no cure.
The diagnosis prompted Jenna’s parents to encourage her to try all activities while she was still able.
Swimming quickly became her favourite sport and Jenna’s talent in the pool was obvious. In 2014 she began to train with the Australian Paralympic squad, and at 15 was one of the youngest swimmers in the squad at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
She competed in five events and qualified for the 100m backstroke and 50m freestyle final, in which she finished seventh.
“I only have four per cent vision now,” says the 17-year-old from NSW Blue Mountains. “So I was thrilled because I didn’t even expect to be there.”
One day Jenna will eventually go blind, but swimming has filled her with confidence and optimism for her future.
Cuddle mums to the rescue!
For these volunteer baby whisperers, cuddling precious newborns is what they live for.
“It’s a rewarding and satisfying way to give back to our community – it’s the best gig I’ve ever had,” retired teacher Di Haydon, 69, says about her role in the special care nursery at Brisbane’s Mater Mothers’ Hospital.
“We have up to 10,000 bubs come through each year, and many stay for more than 100 days – so when Mum can’t be here, we are.”
Co-hugger Chris Abbott, 55, says the secret to being a good “cuddle mum” is remaining calm.
“Babies sense tension, so if Mum is distressed they feel it. That’s why we’re called the baby whisperers! They recognise us – it’s an amazing feeling when they finally relax,” she says.
The handful of volunteers employed each year undergo extensive training.
“We help by feeding, bathing or changing babies, along with hundreds of cuddles,” says Chris. “It’s a privilege to be there for them from day one.”