Community engagement

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Graham Bootsie Thorpe

Photo of Graham Bootsie ThorpeBorn 1950

Dedicated to supporting the community

Uncle Graham Bootsie Thorpe is a much loved and respected community leader. He has dedicated his life to supporting the community. Throughout his working life, he has supported Aboriginal community in many ways, working from the heart and treating everyone he has worked with as family, not clients. He works sensitively with community and has contributed to building supporting resources and referrals for community. He has worked as a health worker in community health and mental health services. Bootsie has been a great mentor for other Aboriginal health workers and often works outside work hours even when he has been unwell himself.

Bootsie Thorpe, a proud Gunai Elder, was born 1950 in Melbourne. He was raised by his grandparents from three months of age in East Gippsland. He then moved between Lake Tyres and Newmerella in Victoria. Bootsie returned to Melbourne at age eleven, and started hanging around Fitzroy from the age of thirteen. Bootsie met his wife Aunty Faye on his fifteenth birthday and they have now been together for over 53 years. They have three children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Driving change in his own life

Bootsie remembers Fitzroy as a meeting place for Aboriginal community, where young fellas used to go to find their family. Bootsie reflects with pride on the strength and unity of the community in the old days; everyone stuck together and was family. The old fellas were his mentors, and have made him into the strong man he is today. Their support gave him the determination and drive to change his own life. Bootsie has overcome his own challenges with alcohol and says he owes his life to the many chances he was given. No one gave up on him and therefore he will never give up on anyone.

In 1977, Bootsie was given the opportunity to start working at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) by his Aunty Alma Thorpe, who was the CEO at the time. Aunty Alma walked into the Builders Arms Hotel where he was drinking and she asked who wanted work. Bootsie knew what community needed and this is what made him passionate about working on the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal community. He started out as a Health Worker and stayed at VAHS for 22 years. He says that the job fell into his hands and it all snowballed from there.

Recognised for his contribution to the community

For his outstanding contribution to the community he was awarded the Victorian NAIDOC Aboriginal of the Year Award in 1996.

Even though Bootsie missed out on a full primary and secondary school education he completed a Certificate in Home and Community Care in 1993 at Swinburne University of Technology (Swinburne), and went on to enrol in a Diploma of Community Services, Psychiatric Disability Support and Dual Diagnoses in 1996. On graduating in 2001 he received a Certificate of Merit for Outstanding Student of the Year from Swinburne. For his knowledge and skills, he was also awarded Victoria and Training Awards 2001 Outstanding Student of the Year – Koorie Award. Education gave Bootsie the opportunity to travel overseas to attend the worldwide Indigenous peoples spiritual healing and wellbeing conference, The Healing Our Spirit Worldwide, in Albuquerque New Mexico and Hawaii.

Between 2000 and 2015 Bootsie worked as an Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Worker at Ngwala Willumbong Ltd, which provides culturally sensitive alcohol and drug services to the Koorie community.

Bootsie has supported community members in court with their substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and mental health issues. This has seen him take on multiple roles, from counsellor to social worker. He also is a member of the Koorie Court Elders Advisory Committee at the Melbourne Magistrates Court, whose agenda is to agree to a protocol between the Koorie Court and the Magistrate’s Court.

Ngwala Willumbong

As part of his role at Ngwala Willumbong Ltd, Bootsie received calls at all hours of the day and night asking him to pick up inebriated Aboriginal community members from police holding cells. He would pick up community members and take them to the drying out centre. He and his wife would make sure that community members had a meal, clean clothes and a comfortable bed to sleep in. If they were homeless he would make sure that they had a place to go and would organise accommodation through Ngwala Willumbong Ltd. When they were sober and ready to leave, Bootsie would take them home. He worked tirelessly among the community and is very well respected for the love, support and empathy he shows.

Bootsie was a part of the first Graduation and Awards Night for Aboriginal health workers held at the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO). Bootsie received an award for 15 years of service, and for dedicating his life to improving the quality of his community’s health.

In 2009, he received a Certificate of Recognition for achieving improved justice outcomes for the Koorie community.

In 2014, Bootsie was awarded the honour of Patron of Victorian NAIDOC and was very humbled by the nomination, saying: "If my community's happy with what I do, I'm happy".

Retired, but as busy as ever

Now retired, Bootsie is as busy as ever. He continues to volunteer his time with Dardi Munwurro – the Strong Spirit Men's Behaviour and Healing Program for family violence travelling across Victoria with his son Alan who runs the program. Dardi Munwurro creates a space for Aboriginal men to heal and provides support and guidance to Aboriginal men through men's groups and gatherings.

Bootsie continues to support the community in any way he can. Uncle Bootsie will never stop supporting community because supporting community is more than a job; it is about supporting family.