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Inspiring Australians ready to take to the stage

Laura Peppas

A burns surgeon, conservationist and nurse helping the fight against Ebola are among the national finalists for the 2016 Australian of the Year Awards, to be announced at the Australian of the Year Awards and Concert.

The refreshed event, to be held from 5pm on January 25, will see the Awards and concert integrated on one large stage in front of Parliament House. With entertainment including Australian music legend Jimmy Barnes, Samantha Jade and Nathaniel, the evening will bring together some of Australia’s best performers and 33 inspiring Australians in one big celebration.

Among the national finalists for the Awards are four Canberrans, including HerCanberra’s own Nipuni “Nip” Wijewickrema in the Young Australian of the Year category.

Nip, who runs a local floristry business designed to create employment opportunities for people with special needs, says she is “honoured and humbled” to be representing Canberra on the national stage.

“I’m trying to show families all around Australia that, with a bit of love, support and compassion, we as a community can find meaningful employment or education opportunities for people with special needs,” Nip says.

“I think as a nation have just come to accepting that most people with special needs will be okay to sit at home and do nothing after they finish schooling. I’m committed to ensuring they remain functional and valued members of our community.”

Nip Wijewickrema and sister Gayana. Photo by: Hannah Walmsley 666 ABC Canberra

Nip Wijewickrema and sister Gayana. Photo by: Hannah Walmsley 666 ABC Canberra

Nip first established GG’s Florist with her family in 2014 to ensure her 16-year-old younger sister Gayana, who was born with Down syndrome, would have fulfilling work after graduating from high school. She says the change in her sister since that time has been “phenomenal.”

“The ‘journey’ of GG’s Flowers has been surreal for myself, but also for Gayana,” Nip says.

“Not only does she get to deliver flowers and hugs all around Canberra, she gets to make new friends, be invited into peoples houses, lives and heart and she gets to go to some pretty impressive functions, award ceremonies and meetings with some very special people. Gayana’s social skills and speech have improved so much since we started the business and it’s really helped her to understand how the world around her works.”

Other national finalists for the Australian of the Year award include transgender advocate Catherine McGregor, burns surgeon Dr John Greenwood AM and former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

In the 2016 Australia’s Local Hero category is the ACT’s Peter Cursley, who established the Newborn Intensive Care Foundation in 1995 after the tragic loss of his baby daughter and wife.

Through Peter’s dedication, vital equipment – from breast pumps and recliner chairs for nursing mums to state-of-the-art medical equipment – has been purchased and more than $4 million has been raised for the Canberra Hospital and its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Peter says he was “gobsmacked” when he found out he was a finalist.

“That was certainly a shock – it is such a great honour, and an opportunity to raise awareness about the foundation,” he says.

Newborn champion Peter Cursley. Photo: Australian of the Year awards

Newborn champion Peter Cursley. Photo: Australian of the Year awards

The Foundation, which cares for around 700 babies each year, also contributes to nurse education and training to ensure staff remain at the cutting-edge of neonatal care.

Peter says he often hears from thankful families who have been assisted by the foundation.

“I got a lovely email about a month ago from a lady who said her daughter was in intensive care for a few weeks about 18 years ago, and at the time the doctors were warning of complications and that she might not make it,” he says.

“Fast track 18 years and that little girl is competing at a national level in gymnastics, and recently she was announced the Australia Day Young Person of the Year. It just shows how much of a difference you can make.”

CEO of the National Australia Day Council Jeremy Lasek says it is inspiring to see Australians valuing those who commit their time, resources and energy to helping those less fortunate.

“The national finalists for the 2016 Australian of the Year Awards are an extraordinary group of Australians who all show outstanding commitment to making our nation and the world a better place,” he says.

“I know the people of Canberra will again welcome our Australian of the Year Awards national finalists with enthusiasm and I look forward to seeing the crowd waving their flags, dressed in green and gold, singing along and dancing as one.”


The essentials:

What: The Australian of the Year Awards

When: Monday 25 January, from 5pm

Where: The lawns in front of Parliament House

How much: Free

Web: For more information on Australia Day visit and for more details on the Australian of the Year Awards visit


Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author