Wendy Stein named Outstanding Rotarian of the Year for work in Papua New Guinea

AWARDED: Wendy Stein proudly displays her International Rotary award at her Taylors Beach home.
AWARDED: Wendy Stein proudly displays her International Rotary award at her Taylors Beach home.

During the World War II Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea, Australian troops stood shoulder to shoulder with their PNG allies in a heroic display of defiance to defend and ultimately expel the advancing enemy.

It led to the forging of a strong bond between Australia and its nearest neighbour which continues to this day.

And while Australia continues to pour billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, the people of rural and remote PNG are often overlooked and left to fend for themselves, resulting in poverty, disease and death.

Enter Wendy Stein, a Port Stephens Rotarian who has waged, almost single-handedly, her own war on that island nation's abject poverty by initiating a range of health and family planning programs that are saving lives.

In June, the Taylors Beach grandmother and member of Salamander Bay Rotary was awarded the Australia-wide 'Outstanding Rotarian of the Year 2018-19' recognising her 14 years of work in PNG.

"It was a great honour to receive the award and I accept it on behalf of Rotary," Ms Stein said in accepting the award at the Salamander Rotary changeover dinner held on June 23.

"My hope is that this award will open Australian eyes to the dreadful plight and struggles the people of PNG's more remote areas endure on a daily basis. Maternal deaths are the highest in the Asia Pacific region and one in five children don't live past the age of five.

"They are dying from preventable and curable diseases, such as diarrhoea and dehydration. Cervical cancer is the second biggest killer in women [behind maternal deaths]. The children that do survive, suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth. There are outbreaks of polio, TB and HIV."

It was a chance visit nearly two decades ago to PNG's Milne Bay Province that inspired Ms Stein to launch her first health care program through the support of Salamander Rotary.

"The early work included family planning, implants and education in the hope of empowering families and providing them with options so that they can have the number of children they can afford to raise," she said.

"There are desperate mothers abandoning their babies because they cannot afford to raise them and mothers bleeding to death due to the lack of basic medical supplies. All this is happening on the doorstep of our nearest neighbours to the people who defended Australia from advancing Japanese forces."

Ms Stein described the situation as a "humanitarian crisis on the verge of being a humanitarian disaster".

Milne Bay Province is made up of 10 large and approximately 150 small islands, with a population around 300,000. The people live a self-sufficient lifestyle on a diet of rice, potatoes and seafood. The land is too rugged to grow vegetables and for a long time medical services were limited.

That was until 2015 when Ms Stein commandeered a vessel - called Kula Spirit - from Port Stephens to PNG, where it acts as a floating medical centre, reaching remote villages offering services such as primary health care, family planning (implants), eye care, training, awareness and prevention.

As the project manager Ms Stein is the lone Australian working in these remote areas, empowering and up-skilling local health workers to carry on the work for the six months a year she spends back home tending to her 94-year-old mother. "I can't stop now," she admits.

The area can be a dangerous place. Gangs of youth and sea pirates abound - robbing, assaulting and killing people for food or money.

"Fortunately, they leave me alone because of the Rotary brand... I am no threat to anyone but that does not mean we don't take precautions when we are travelling," Ms Stein said.

There is also a high incidence of gender and domestic violence, "again mainly due to the fact that families have too many children, not enough food and land".

Rotary district governor Bronwyn Stephens described ms Stein's dedication over 14 years was "heartfelt and comes from true humility".

"It is appropriate, however, and she is absolutely deserving of this esteemed recognition and [we are all] in admiration of her achievement in PNG. This area is a most difficult country to navigate, dangerous at time and unpredictable," Ms Stephens said.

Ms Stein said that while the programs continue to be funded by Rotary, more funds are desperately needed.

"We recently received a donation from Dick Smith to support our family planning which has made a huge difference. We are seeking more project partners to assist in areas of health, education, clean water, the list goes on," she said.

To donate or find out more information on 'Save the Kula Babies' go to rawcs.org.au.