Forging a pathway of change and Reconciliation through her relentless community work, Aunty Isabel Reid is the 2021 NSW Australian Senior of the Year.

The award is an acknowledgment of the proud Wiradjuri Elder’s decades of work advocating for those impacted by the Stolen Generations, along with her activism for community and First Nations education.

Ms Reid said she had only hoped she could use her voice to help her community, that she was even nominated for the award was unexpected and overwhelming.

“I’m overwhelmed by the response, I’m still trying to process at the moment,” she said.

“When I do this work, I’m not thinking about what I can get at the end of it, I just love what I do.

“I just want to help my people, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be nominated for such a big award.”

Born in 1932, Aunty Isabel is one of the oldest living survivors of the Stolen Generation, children who were forcibly removed under the NSW Aborigines Protection Act from 1909 to 1969.

At seven, Aunty Isabel, her sister Betty and her brother Jack were stolen while walking home from school in Dubbo, NSW.

Her parents had no idea what had happened to their children.

“A truck pulled up and they asked us to get inside, they said we were going to be taken home but that didn’t happen,” Ms Reid said.

“We were taken down to the police station and then shipped off on a train to Sydney after a couple of days.

“It was terrifying in the cell as you can imagine, three little children screaming for their mum and dad.”

Aunty Isabel and Betty were sent to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home.

“Betty and I went to Cootamundra and Jack went to Kinchela [Boys Home], that was the last I saw of Jack,” she said.

Now 88, Aunty Isabel uses her time to raise awareness of the impacts of the Stolen Generations and advocates to close the gap in First Nations education.

When she returned to Country, Aunty Isabel took herself to TAFE to learn how to read and write.

“I didn’t get much of an education in the girls’ home, so I decided to go back to TAFE which helped me a lot,” she said.

From there Aunty Isabel acquired a job at a primary school in Wagga Wagga, teaching Indigenous children to read and write.

“I was taking my granddaughter to school and the class was asking for carers and parents to help children read, although I didn’t have a lot of experience, I really loved working with them,” she said.

“I would read to the children as well, which helped me get a bit of my education back. I helped them and they helped me in return.”

Since then, Aunty Isabel has done relentless advocacy work for Indigenous Australia, including being a key figure and voice behind the push for the NSW Government to offer $74 million in reparations to those forcibly removed from their families under the former Aborigines Protection Act.

In 2013, she was made an inaugural Director of the Coota Girls Aboriginal Corporation and in 2016, she was appointed an inaugural member and Chairp of the Stolen Generations Advisory Committee.

Aunty Isabel also led the 2020 Black Lives Matter march in Wagga Wagga, where she now resides.

She was recognised for her work in the community by the Wagga Wagga Mayor with a Mayoral Reception in her honour in December 2020.

“The community has been lovely, they’ve really embraced me and they’re so excited,” she said.

“The Mayor held a beautiful morning tea, and my friends and family were invited.

“It’s been great to have them there and show me their support.”

Aunty Isabel said that there is still a lot to be done, that the work that she does always keeps her motivated and pushes her to strive for even better things.

“After the awards and acknowledgements, the work doesn’t stop,” she said.

“I’ll still use my voice in the community for what matters.

“It’s just so great to be a part of building a better future for our people and to make sure the wrongs of the past are recognised and made right.”

By Darby Ingram