Some people seem able to pack several lifetimes into one. The late Mary Burbidge, Gellibrand’s heartbeat for more than 40 years, was one of those people. Her energy, enthusiasm, and passion for people with disability – on top of being a GP, local councillor, mother to a daughter with intellectual disability, author, and disability advocate – means Mary will forever be the benchmark for Gellibrand’s commitment to always put clients first.

In 1979, Mary co-founded ‘Urimbirra’ in her home suburb of Williamstown, the organisation that would later become Gellibrand Support Services. The local Rotary branch had some bingo proceeds and they wanted to make a difference with them in the local community. Mary, Alice Fraser, and other families teamed up to use the funds – and raise more as time went on– to establish, maintain, and staff houses for people with disability.

Mary was a GP to many Gellibrand clients in the early days and, though she supported other disability organisations, she was on Gellibrand’s committee of management for more than 25 years, several of those as President.

“Mary believed in Gellibrand; its clients, its vision, its passion, and its team,” said Gellibrand’s Customer Wellbeing Manager Margaret Given, whom Mary employed more than 25 years ago. “She looked past my lack of management and leadership experience; she saw the passion in me to work with people with disabilities to have the best life possible.”

Margaret added that “from year one to year 40” Mary’s belief in Gellibrand never wavered. She described Mary as a compassionate, community-minded person; a skilled leader who worked tirelessly in her efforts to establish services for people with disability. Gellibrand’s current President, Elena Ashley, said that knowing Mary believed in her was vital in her taking on the role.

“She let me know that she was very ill and wanted me to be Gellibrand’s next President. I felt honoured and nervous. Knowing that Mary thought I could do it gave me confidence,” Elena said, adding that this was typical of Mary, who took “responsibility for putting the required supports in place, while looking for ways to help others grow.”

Mary was instrumental in Matthew Hoyle becoming CEO and she championed with Matthew what became known as ‘The Gellibrand Way’ – an approach to support that puts clients first at all times.  As mother to Jenny, Mary knew what it meant to put people with disability first and she documented those challenges and joys in the diary she started in 1990. Those scribblings became the book Forever Baby – Jenny’s Story, A Mother’s Diary (HarperCollins, 1997).

“The gritty, heart-bursting world of parenting is captured in a way that I have rarely met elsewhere,” said Steve Biddulph, renowned Australian psychologist and author. “But the drama, transcendence and tragedy of raising a child with a disability takes this to a deeper plane still. Jenny’s story and Mary’s telling of it, will grip the reader and change how they see the world around them for a very long time.”

Though she was serious about supporting people with disability, Mary still brought laughter – and music – to Gellibrand’s client events, showing up with her trusty flute and sounding out a tune. She loved birdwatching and helped make Newport Lakes, recovered from a quarry site, a reality. She also supported her late husband Andrew’s daily care needs when he had post-polio syndrome; Mary had time, it seemed, for anyone who needed her, especially Gellibrand.

“She will be best remembered not for what she did, but for who she was. For her kind heart, her compassion, her generosity, not only with money but also time, her infectious laughter, her spirit, her acceptance of everyone and her loving nature,” wrote her daughter Jenny and her friend Helene Richards in an obituary in The Age.

Today, Mary’s legacy at Gellibrand is there for all to see: she donated a holiday house clients use in Portarlington and her name adorns our thriving community space, the Mary Burbidge Hub. It is, however, the mark she has left on Gellibrand’s culture that is her greatest legacy.

“Clients come first; no ifs, no buts,” said Margaret Given. “Thank you for all you have left us, Mary; a dedication to community service second to none; a standard of care expected for clients; memories of times that seem so long ago now and a legacy that means clients will always come first.”

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