Western Australian of the Year: Finalists named as State recognises high achievers

Claire TyrrellThe West Australian
Brooke Blurton, Ricky Grace, Kendall Whyte, John Newnham and Christina Matthews.
Camera IconBrooke Blurton, Ricky Grace, Kendall Whyte, John Newnham and Christina Matthews. Credit: Steve Ferrier

A youth worker, a Wildcats legend, the creator of a national movement, the world’s top foetal medicine doctor and a respected sports administrator.

These West Australians come from different walks of life but each is set to be recognised as one of the State’s highest achievers.

Brooke Blurton, Ricky Grace, Kendall Whyte, John Newnham and Christina Matthews are among this year’s Western Australian of the Year Award finalists.

Ms Blurton rose to prominence after appearing on The Bachelor as the show’s first indigenous contestant. She returned to Australian TV screens more recently on Bachelor in Paradise.

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Her nomination is in recognition of her career as a youth worker in Perth. A passionate advocate for mental health, Ms Blurton was aged just 11 when she lost her mother to suicide.

The 24-year-old said she lived by the axiom “work hard in silence and let your work do the talking”.

Fellow youth category finalist Kendall Whyte founded the Blue Tree Project after her brother Jayden took his own life last year.

“A story was shared at his funeral about how he painted a tree one night in 2014 and people felt compelled to paint a tree blue to raise awareness for mental health,” she said.

“It’s amazing to see it all around Australia and even the world now.”

Former Perth Wildcat Ricky Grace founded the Girls Academy 15 years ago and the program is now empowering Aboriginal girls through training, mentoring and sport in dozens of schools across Australia.

“To recreate myself and be recognised for the contribution I have made to WA, I am lost for a word to describe how happy I am,” Grace, a finalist in the community category, said.

After he ended his storied basketball career in 2005, Grace — who was born in Dallas, Texas — decided to use his public profile as a force for good in his adopted home town. The Girls Academy has helped thousands of girls into employment.

“When I found out about the lack of support for Aboriginal girls it really disappointed me,” he said. “I have daughters and I grew up with a single mum so I know how hard it can be for girls.”

Grace joins Challis School principal Lee Musumeci, Bruce Langoulant, who has helped raise awareness of meningitis, and The Fathering Project founder James McMahon in the community category.

Professor John Newnham is world renowned for his trailblazing work in preventing prenatal births.

In the early 1980s Professor Newnham went to the US and became the first Australian to work in the field of maternal foetal medicine.

He is now one of five specialists in WA and leads a team at the Women and Infants Research Foundation.

Based at King Edward Memorial Hospital, the WIRF is doing no less than improving the general health of the future population of WA by helping to lower the pre-term birth rate.

“Pre-term birth is the single greatest cause of death in children under five and no one had been able to lower the rate,” the University of Western Australia head of obstetrics and gynaecology said.

Through the national Pre-term Birth Prevention Alliance, he is travelling Australia to identify hotspots where pre-term births are increasing.

He said babies born prematurely risked a host of complications later in life, including severe disability, blindness, deafness and behavioural problems.

Other finalists in the professions category include former mining executive Peter Meurs, ophthalmologist Angus Turner and environmental scientist Professor Peter Newman.

WACA chief executive Christina Matthews, a finalist in the sport award, said she was pleased to be recognised for her cricket contribution.

“I am most proud of how we have become so much more community oriented, where we are focused on all levels, from juniors to elites,” she said. “Also the connections we’ve made with charities.”

Ms Matthews said linking Optus Stadium with WA cricket was also one of her organisation’s proudest achievements. She will vie for honours in the sport award with soccer superstar Sam Kerr, wheelchair basketballer Grant Manzoney and former Hockey Australia boss David Hatt.

The winners will be announced by WA Governor Kim Beazley on May 31 to mark the WA Day weekend. An overall winner will be named Western Australian of the Year 2019.

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