Vale Helen Lee: Fawkner swim teacher, community activist, food swap co-ordinator

It is with great sadness that we heard of the passing of Helen Lee on 13th September 2017, one of the co-ordinators for the Fawkner Food Swap for the last few years.

Helen has lived in Fawkner since 2009, many of those years with her partner Rachel.

Helen was a swim teacher at the Fawkner Leisure Centre instructing children in water safety and swimming. She had previously done swim teaching at the Brunswick and Coburg Swimming Pools.

She also participated in tree and grass plantings and the bird surveys conducted by Friends of Merri Creek at Bababi Djininang at the end of Jukes Road. She was involved in a local gardening group.

Panorama of native tree planting at Fawkner -IMG_7788-IMG_7801

You may have seen Helen cycling around the streets of Fawkner or on the Upfield bike path either on her upright bicycle from Commuter Cycles or her yellow recumbent tricycle (built by Cycle Science from Mitchum).

She loved going to Rose’s Bonwick Street Bakery and Cafe for coffee.

She was always willing to share her insights in gardening or other areas of life at our monthly food swap.

She will be sorely missed.

Her memorial service event was held at the Fawkner community House on Jukes Road on 23 September, attended by about 100 friends and family.

One of the speakers at the memorial event was former Moreland Councillor Alice Pryor who detailed a couple of ways Helen made a major impact on Moreland. One was her involvement with the Brunswick Commmunity Heath Service (Now Merri Health), her appointment to the Board and subsequently the chairperson of the Board of Management, and later the 1999 campaign to stop the closure of the medical service from the Brunswick Community Health Centre on Glenlyon Road (a petition garnered 1800 signatures in just 9 days). The medical service continues to this day, although it is an outpost of St Vincents Hospital.

The other was her campaign for all public buildings to meet building guidelines for the amount of pressure or force required to open them, to make them more accessible. This is particularly important for people with a disability. In Helen’s case her arthritis made it difficult opening heavy doors.

Helen got hold of a Newton gauge which measures the force in either Newtons or kilograms required to open doors. After a few complaints from Helen regarding ‘heavy’ doors not meeting building accessibility standards, pretty soon quite a few Council staff were going around with Newton Gauges measuring the pressure required to open doors and trying to working out ways to make them more accessible.

The Brunswick Library was one such place and automatic doors were subsequently put in by Council in 2005.

Helen organised a small public opening ceremony at Brunswick Library in May 2005 to celebrate, with a certificate presented to the librarians, and party balloons, drinks and snacks for the accompanying children.

Helen Lee at ‘formal opening’ of Brunswick Library automatic doors

The following brief summary of her life is republished from her Memorial Service book courtesy of John Englart.

Helen Lee – A Moreland life

Helen Lee was born in Brisbane, grew up in Adelaide, but spent the whole of her adult life in Melbourne, especially Brunswick where she made the City of Moreland her home. She became part of the very fabric of this community to the day she died.

She was a proud and active citizen of what Mike Hill, the first Moreland Mayor, celebrated as the Peoples’ Republic of Moreland.

Over the last 6 months she faced with courage and dignity her death from cancer that had metastasised into her lungs. Helen loved life and wanted more, she was just a little afraid of the last part of the journey. It was surprisingly quick in the end. When Helen decided to do something, there was seldom equivocation. She didn’t want to muck about lingering with this thing called dying.

At her last visit to the Peter MacCallum hospital she was told she only had at most 2 weeks: it proved to be just 2 days. For the journey back to Fawkner she was driven along Sydney Road one last time, behind the number 19 tram. It was an opportunity to wave goodbye to a life well lived in Brunswick and Moreland from 1978 to the present.

She enjoyed her partner Rachel’s birthday before her death, and this gave her great satisfaction. Rachel Morgan was her third great love.

Helen’s community activism started in Adelaide as a teenager in the Campaign Against Nuclear Energy (CANE) office. She later moved to Melbourne and became involved with Friends of the Earth in Collingwood, working in the FoE organic food co-op shop. It was there she met her first great love Tony Brown.

In the 1980s she was Chair of the Board of the Brunswick Community Health Centre (later to become Merri Health), after her mentor Vida Little, who was pivotal in establishing this institution in 1975. In 1999 she lead the community campaign against the closure of the medical service at the Community Health Centre in Glenlyon Road. In her final days Helen contacted Merri Health Board of Management volunteering to fund a monument and plaque to Vida Little. She has delegated this task in her absence.

Her 3 children attended the Brunswick Turkish Women’s Childcare Cooperative in Tinning street where she also chaired the Board of Management for a time and did an action research project on member participation. This childcare centre has now been subsumed into Moreland Council Childcare Centre. Her three kids went on to attend Brunswick South PS, Brunswick SW PS, Brunswick High, and Pascoe Vale Girls College.

From 1992 to 2008 she lived in the intentional housing community Bread and Roses in Brunswick, where she co-parented and income shared with the other adults, including her second great love, John Englart. The Bread and Roses community supported each other in many social justice projects and campaigns.

Helen loved cycling. When arthritis in her hands meant she had trouble on an upright bicycle, she bought a recumbent tricycle to enjoy Moreland’s bike paths and further afield. She attended Critical Mass, the Great Western Australian bike ride in 2006 and three wilderness bike rides in East Gippsland. Her last cycling adventure was the Grand Ridge Rail Trail in Gippsland in July with Rachel and John.

Due to dysfunctional family circumstances, Helen left school at 15, but later went to Broadmeadows TAFE completing a Diploma in Community Development, then to RMIT where she graduated with an Honours degree in Social Work. During her studies she became an active particpant in the Action Research Issues Association making many life-long friends.

Health issues prevented her from working in social work, so she took up swim teaching at the YMCA managed Council pools, first in Brunswick, then Fawkner. Mentored by her friend Anne, her swim teaching technique used a mixture of social work training, parenting skills, and some plain old headology. She was highly respected by her colleagues and parents.

Helen’s was an active unionist and saw solidarity as important for addressing inequality and social injustice. Her politics were informed by feminism, anarchism and a strong sense of community.

Helen’s essential nature was as an introvert. She was an autodidact, and an avid bookworm with a phenomenal reading speed for fiction. She used Moreland City Libraries to feed her reading habit. The installation of automatic doors at Brunswick Library can be attributed to Helen and her health issues.

Helen enjoyed collecting and interacting with many people and adding them to her networks. She weaved their life into hers.

In her final weeks Helen was nominated and accepted the Eureka Australia Medal award, conferred on grassroots activists for their contibutions to activism not recognised elsewhere. The award will be given out posthumously at Bakery Hill in Ballarat on the anniversary of Eureka, December 3.

Helen leaves behind her partner of eight years Rachel Morgan, her three kids: Erin and partner Rachel, Jesi and partner Ben and grandchild Ellen, Tarryn, and foster daughter Kate, former partners John Englart and Tony Brown, members of the Bread and Roses community, and her many friends in the Melbourne lesbian community and Moreland community.

— John Englart

Helen had a coffin painting party for her family and friends to paint and add messages to her coffin.

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