You may have heard that it is the first time that Australian servicewomen lead the ANZAC day March this year, but another first you never heard about is that it is the also the very first time for the members of War Widow Guild of Australia NSW are invited to join the March.
Who are they?
The History of the Guild can be traced back to 1945 when it was first established after WWII with a mission of promoting and protecting the interests of war widows. It has fought to improve the financial and social circumstances of the members through constant advocacy with the government.
The women in the Guild are mainly lost their husbands during World War II. But also there are many of them are lost their husband in contemporary wars such as Vietnam and Afghanistan war. Their husbands may back from the field safely but be taken life later on as consequences of the fight due to various mental or physical health issues.
“When we first started, it was a lot about getting the rights and recognition and financial support for them in many areas.” Said by Elissa Thompson, the communication officer of the Guild.
“More recently, our memberships are quite elderly now, we sort of meeting changing needs of the members and their families. As far as we helped them, we provide information and support to our members through different roles.” Added by Elissa. For her, she is in charge of the quarterly magazine which named as Guild Digest. It provides information about the upcoming events as well as the whole idea of commemoration.
“Our role with the members has changed over the years. “
Sorrow and strength as a woman behind the heroes
The story behind Sharon Polese, a member and volunteer of The War Widow Guild of Australia NSW Ltd. Video by Jianan Dong.
For Sharon, soldiers and wars are never something far away since she was born in a veteran family. Her father is a WWII veteran and she married a soldier due to this reason. Her first husband went to Vietnam war as an engineer in 1970 and back from the field safely both physically and mentally.
Their marriage life being happy and blissful for the next 16 years until a brain tumour was found out in her husband’s body. The doctor diagnoses it as secondary cancer from lungs. “It only took 11 months since we found out a tumour and he died because of cancer.” Sharon said.
“It was hard.”
Agent Orange was the killer. It is a chemical weapon that widely used in Vietnam War to defoliate the forests so that they can see the enemies who were hidden behind leaves. Its influence on human bodies is enduring and fatal, but also chronic that will not immediately show up.
Supports and cares from the Guild
The Guild provides various benefits to its members in different aspects. For Sharon, she is now living in a house located in Drummoyne that provided by the Guild. The rent is highly subsidized, and she can also talk to other war widows who are the neighbours.
She did not join the Guild as a member until 2015 when she got divorced from her second husband who was also a soldier. But she became an active volunteer as soon as she joined. “I enjoy the role I am doing because I am the one who is helped by others. I know how it is important to us.” She said.
She is now helping out the Guild with some administrative stuff and being part of a program called “Friendship Line”, which was initiated by the Guild since 2000.
“It is a program that calling our members on a regular basis so that member can feel the Guild never forget them. Even some are not members financially, they will still be included in the call list.” Said by Sharon.
According to the roster, she will be in the office to call up the member for a chat with members on Tuesday and Friday from 10 am to 3 pm. The conversations are generally quite basic but remain strictly confidential.
“For example, I called a lady today who are new to the Guild, and it is her first time receiving the call from us. So I collected her information such as her hobbies, family situations, how many children she has, any pets she owns, things like that. So next time whoever call her can chat with her according to her information recorded.”
The member over 90 will be called twice a month and also every member will receive a birth call from us. “We made 4-8 birthday calls every day in general.” Said by Sharon.
“They feel they are really being cared. Some ladies even send me thanks cards, that’s really sweet.” She smiled.
Challenges never end
With over 4100 members within NSW and the average age of the membership being 87 years old, the Guild is facing different challenges throughout the way of progress.
One of the most obvious challenges is the different needs due to the large age gap between the members. The youngest of the member is 35 who lost her husband in the Vietnam war and the oldest has already been 103.
“The needs of some older members are higher. So when they call up or we speak with them, we need to provide support to them or help them managing things like housing and medical issues, or as simple as transports.” Said by Elissa.
“But for the younger one, they have a lot of online networks. We can help them to navigate through lots of bureaucratic red tapes. There are different regulations, and it is very complex.” She added.
Another crucial issue is the nature of aging membership. “We have to stay relevant and sustainable. That is something that the organization at the board level is navigating at the moment.”
How can you give your hands to these wonderful women?
Become a member of the organization or an event volunteer of the organization by contacting 02 9267 6577.
Donate to the guild by visiting http://www.warwidowsnsw.com.au/About_the_Guild/Make_a_Donation.htm.
Also, if you want to share this story, please hashtag #warwidowsguildnsw to tell us more about stories behind these beautiful women.