You might think that being a Professor of Economics at the ANU would be an…
For most of her life, Sandra Mahlberg has been committed to one simple notion: Pay it forward.
The Canberra mother of three has worked tirelessly for almost 10 years as the ACT coordinator for Rotary Oceania Medical Aid for Children (ROMAC), a volunteer organisation that helps children from developing countries with severe medical conditions.
Sandra has opened her heart and home for the cause; sourcing funding for the children’s accommodation and transport to and from Australia, seeking voluntary contributions from surgeons and hospitals, and coordinating the post-operative, pastoral care and selection of children who need surgery for life-threatening but treatable conditions.
To date she has hosted 15 children and their guardians in her own home, supporting them for up to a year at a time while also juggling her full-time nursing role at Calvary Hospital.
“One of the most recent cases we had was a 14-year-old boy from Vanuatu who was born with Hirschprung’s disease, a genetic condition that causes chronic bowel blockage,” says Sandra.
“He weighed about 27 kilograms and when he arrived in Canberra last year before his treatment, his abdomen was swollen and his growth was severely underdeveloped.
“In Australia, if a child was born with the same deformity they would have had surgery and been treated by the time they were six months old. But for him to live through it until he’s 14…it’s just not right that they have so little when we have so much.”
For her unyielding pursuit of changing lives, Sandra has been named a Senior Australian of the Year finalist and is the only female finalist from the ACT.
When asked about the award she is endearingly humble, insisting she’s “just a normal person who loves what they do”.
“Being the only female finalist from the ACT means I can be an example for the women in our community. If I can do it, others can,” Sandra says.
The fact women have dominated the awards this year is also “fantastic to see,” she adds.
“I’m so excited about meeting them all. I’ve always said women can do anything if they have enough passion.”
Sandra’s journey with ROMAC began in 2006 when she was president of the Ginninderra Rotary Club.
“The program had been running in other states in Australia and New Zealand for almost 20 years when it came to the ACT,” she says.
“I wanted something special we could have in the health area, so it just worked out. Yes it takes a lot of time but you get so much joy out of it.”
With most of the funding reliant on Rotary Clubs and fundraisers, one of Sandra’s biggest achievements was gaining approval from the ACT government to fund the treatment of up to four children a year.
“These children become family, so to do the best we can for them is important,” she says.
“Seeing them leave the country successfully treated for their conditions is an amazing thing. Although I usually can’t speak their language, they know we care.
“It’s hard for the parents too because they have to trust people they don’t know; they’ve never been out of their country. But they’re so thankful and amazed with the care they receive. There’s a lot of tears and hugs at the end when it’s time for them to go home.”
Sandra says she won’t be nervous on Australia Day eve, when the Australian of the year is announced.
“I honestly already feel like I’ve achieved so much with this nomination,” she says.
“Not many people can say they’ve had this, so in many ways, it’s enough for me. Just to be able to leave a legacy is very special.”