Hunter Region Botanic Gardens founder Kevin Stokes named 2021 Senior Hunter Volunteer of the Year

Kevin Stokes has been recognised for his four decade dedication to the Hunter Region Botanic Gardens in the NSW Volunteer of the Year Awards.

In a special ceremony on Friday, Mr Stokes, one of the founding fathers of the Heatherbrae-based gardens, was named the 2021 Senior Hunter Volunteer of the Year.

"Kevin's leadership has seen the gardens overcome many obstacles over the years, including financial difficulties, drought and COVID-19 restrictions. His knowledge of plants, particularly Australian native plants, and willingness to share his knowledge is legendary," the Centre for Volunteering, which coordinates the annual awards, stated.

The Toronto resident has been involved with the gardens since 1981 when it was a mere idea.

He attended a meeting where a group of people who believed Newcastle should have its own botanic gardens met and set out to achieve that goal.

Mr Stokes was there when Hunter Water offered a 133 hectare patch of land in Heatherbrae on a peppercorn lease of $1 a year to site the gardens.

He worked with other volunteers to establish the gardens, which has a focus on the promotion and conservation of native plants, and was there in 1986 when the gates opened to the public.

Mr Stokes has remained a faithful volunteer in the years since, through the highs and struggles, including as chairman.

He is one of only two founders, alongside Kevin McDonald, still involved with the gardens.

Gardens founders Kevin Stokes and Kevin McDonald.

Gardens founders Kevin Stokes and Kevin McDonald.

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The gardens relies on grants, one-off payments, sponsorship, works in kind and the money it makes from entry fees, parking, cafe, plant sales and shop to stay afloat.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had such a dramatic effect on the gardens.

The gates have been closed since June 28 due to the COVID-19 lockdown, its 200 volunteers stood down and funding has dried up.

The awards recognise the "outstanding effort of volunteers working across all sections of communities throughout the state".

The announcement follows the release of the inaugural NSW State of Volunteering Report, which found that volunteers contribute more than $127 billion to NSW annually in social and economic benefits.

The research concluded that every dollar invested in volunteering services across the state returns $3.30 in economic benefit and that the 4.9 million volunteers in NSW contributed 1.5 billion hours to their communities in the past year.

The 2021 NSW Volunteer of the Year Award recipients for the Hunter are:

Young Volunteer of the Year: Hayley Johns, Bolwarra Heights

Hayley volunteers for the National Rural Student network and St Johns Ambulance at Maitland. She is Maitland's Youth Ambassador and a Justice of the Peace. She has also volunteered for the SES and as a member of the Lake Macquarie Youth Advisory Committee.

Adult Volunteer of the Year: Leanne Pitt-Barile, Black Hill

Leanne is the volunteer NSW Team Leader with national charity Share the Dignity, which supports people who may be experiencing homelessness, fleeing domestic violence, or suffering financial hardship. Leanne co-ordinates three campaign drives and events a year as well as supporting the Share the Dignity Vending machines, which allow women and children to receive personal health care products without having to ask.

Senior Volunteer of the Year: Kevin Stokes, Toronto

Kevin Stokes is one of the founding fathers of the Hunter Region Botanic Gardens and its longest serving volunteer, with 36 years of continuous service. Kevin's leadership has seen the gardens overcome many obstacles over the years, including financial difficulties, drought and COVID-19 restrictions. His knowledge of plants, particularly Australian Native plants, and willingness to share his knowledge is legendary.

Volunteer Team of the Year: Lego Therapy Volunteer Team, Lake Macquarie

The four volunteers support children with a developmental delay or disability. At weekly LEGO Club group sessions through the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, they help the children navigate teamwork, social skills and activities. All the volunteers are students and apprentices, and they have a great connection with the children.

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