‘There’ll never be another Merle’

Merle Mitchell at a tribute garden on the site of the former Enterprise Hostel in Springvale in 2014. 126005_26 Picture: GARY SISSONS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

Merle Valma Mitchell

15.07.1934 – 20.09.2021

Merle Mitchell AM, 87, is being remembered as a “true leader” – one who nurtured Greater Dandenong’s community and was a voice for thousands otherwise unheard.

Mayors and community leaders reacted with shock, grief and admiration for our ‘living treasure’ who died peacefully on Monday 20 September.

To them, the Dandenong-born trailblazer for social justice, community cohesion and diversity on the national stage was their loyal, approachable friend.

A mentor and inspiration – who from her aged care room decried unfairness up to the last.

A kindergarten teacher who grew into a Greater Dandenong Living Treasure and a Member of the Order of Australia.

As a leader, she was the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), an advocate of the Council of the Ageing and founder of Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau (SCAAB).

Ms Mitchell inspired many like organisations, such as Springvale Neighbourhood House, the Family Mediation Centre and Springvale Indo-Chinese Mutual Assistance Association (SICMAA).

“Strong communities don’t just happen. They have to be worked at,” she once wrote.

In retirement, Ms Mitchell was far from retiring.

She remained a patron of ACOSS and South East Community Links (formerly SCAAB), an adviser for SICMAA and active in Greater Dandenong’s positive ageing advisory committee.

From the 1970s, through SCAAB she was an active part of the remarkable Springvale community effort to befriend and support 30,000 refugees at the Enterprise hostel.

In the past decade, she helped retell the story in an ongoing internationally-acclaimed history project, Spirit of Enterprise.

Often she cited the story as an example of how to welcome Australia’s new arrivals.

“People felt welcomed. It was a welcome that told people that everyone was pleased you’re here,” Ms Mitchell told Star Journal in 2018.

“Keep your language, keep your tradition, keep your faith – you are part of the whole.”

From that story bloomed a rose garden including the ‘Enterprise rose’ and a living-history trail in Springvale as well as an Immigration Museum exhibition.

In 2018, Spirit of Enterprise was singled out for its outstanding contribution to culture by the international United Cities and Local Government Awards.

Be Ha, a refugee and former Enterprise hostel resident, was befriended and inspired by Ms Mitchell.

One of Ms Mitchell’s initiatives was ‘The Friendship Scheme’ in which Enterprise residents connected with local Springvale families.

Ms Ha remembers she, her parents and brother and sister sharing Christmas dinner at their local family Nina and Robert Saul’s home.

She worked as a volunteer with Ms Mitchell at SCAAB. Now she is president of SICMAA, a social welfare group run by the Vietnamese community for the Vietnamese community.

She said Ms Mitchell was instrumental in setting up and advising the group.

“She said never sit there and expect all this funding from the government. You have to go out and sell it – let the people know who you are.”

Ms Mitchell taught her the power of listening to people, and not to take sides.

“We should remember Merle as a community leader, as a community friend, as a community partner.

“She was a true friend you can rely on – a friend for life.

“I love her for the rest of my life.”

When recently asked when she would retire, Ms Ha said she couldn’t.

“Merle Mitchell is still going, so why should I retire before her?”

In 2019, Ms Mitchell’s testimony about living in aged care blazed into national headlines at a national Royal Commission.

“An aged care facility is not a home. It is an institution,” her submission stated.

She spoke out on understaffing, undertraining, the lack of challenging activities and a lack of empathy.

“I know I’m here until I die so every morning when I wake up I think, ‘damn I’ve woken up’.”

She welcomed the interim report when it was handed down, but knew the work wasn’t over.

“He’s exposed the problems, we know what the solutions are and we have to make sure that the Governments make the money available for that to happen,” she told Star Journal.

During Covid lockdowns – including this one – Ms Mitchell’s friends and family were barred from visiting. Her isolation was agonising, and the toll on staff and residents was heavy inside the home.

Last year she said: “The impact on mental health is something that will live in the community for a very, very long time.”

Some of the Royal Commission’s damning findings were a direct result of Ms Mitchell’s evidence, former Greater Dandenong mayor Roz Blades said.

“She was Merle Mitchell to the end, even while in aged care.

“There will never be another one.

“I’m really sad today but also pleased for the life that she had and that she shared it with us.

“We as a community should be forever grateful to Merle. She may have had influence on the national stage but she was our Merle.”

Ever since Ms Blades was elected as a Springvale councillor in 1987, Ms Mitchell became a “role model in what you can do in the community”.

She continued to learn much from Ms Mitchell, even when they spoke days before her passing.

“I’m a bit lost without her.

“The way she brought everybody into SCAAB, that was the start of social policy for people who come over from other countries. She gave everyone a voice.

“We had someone in Greater Dandenong who on the national stage made life better for people.

“We were fortunate to have someone who did that. You took that for granted but she was there for us to learn from.”

A community, multicultural festival would be a fitting celebration of Ms Mitchell’s life, Ms Blades said.

“We have to repay her, we have to carry on that legacy for Merle.”

Mayor Angela Long said Ms Mitchell for decades had been a “kind, approachable, lovely lady” who “helped anyone who came in contact with her”.

“If she had a bee in her bonnet, you couldn’t shift that bee out. She advocated for the things she believed in.”

Ms Mitchell and her late husband and former Springvale mayor Eric donated a tree from their garden to Greater Dandenong, Cr Long said.

It had been stored and planted with a plaque at Springvale Community Hub last December.

The council would now look at how best to pay tribute to her, including donating an Enterprise rose to her bereaved family.

“It’s a tragic loss to the City of Greater Dandenong.”

Springvale Neighbourhood House co-ordinator Heather Duggan said Ms Mitchell was her mentor for decades, and one who inspired people. Took them along with her.

“The memories are enormous. There’s a sense of pride in what she’s achieved for the community.

“She could see what needed to be done and did it.”

And there was much that she did quietly and humbly behind the scenes, Ms Duggan said.

“She didn’t want the glory for herself. She’d get quite cross when you acknowledged her.

“When she got her AM (Member of the Order of Australia) she was really cross about all the fuss.

“Anything that she achieved she always said it was a team effort.”

For 13 years, they also worked together on the Spirit of Enterprise.

Recently, Ms Mitchell had been writing a history on the project as a model for “community development”, Ms Duggan said.

It showed how you can bring the community together with all levels of government, she said.

“She leaves a big hole in my heart.

“A wonderful woman – her tentacles go far and wide and will be felt in the community for a long time.”

Former Greater Dandenong councillor Matthew Kirwan said he could not have had a better mentor in “true community development” than Ms Mitchell.

“While Merle was often the smartest person in the room she never made anyone feel like it as she genuinely saw everyone as equals.

“I am reminded of the last page of Finlay Crisp’s biography of Ben Chifley when he said that it may be that no one is truly irreplaceable but some get very close by the gaping hole they leave for others to fill.

“If that hole gets filled it is because they inspire other people to do it. Merle was one of those people.”

ACOSS paid tribute to their former chief executive and “cherished patron” and her “long lasting” legacy.

“As a lifelong advocate for equality, community and diversity, Merle was well-known by many people in our local community and far beyond for her grace, courage and tireless advocacy.

“She was a voice for thousands of people whose voices were unheard.”

Ms Mitchell’s funeral service is limited to an attendance of 10 due to Covid restrictions. It will be streamed online on Wednesday 29 September 10am.