21 March 2022

How Yarram is Closing the Gap

Close the Gap Day is marked on the national stage each year. But for proud Kuku Yalanji man, Shaun Braybrook, it is also a reminder of how far the small South Gippsland community of Yarram has come in the last 11 years.

And this year’s Close the Gap ceremony at the front of the Yarram and District Health Service reaffirmed that it has come a long way.

Shaun had two roles at the ceremony – one as Chair of the Yarram District Health Service and as one of the Koori men who performed traditional dances handed down through history.

The health service has been acknowledging Close the Gap Day for seven years now, thanks to Shaun and this year’s ceremony attracted the largest turnout yet. They listened intently to Uncle Lloyd Hood’s Welcome to Country and then to Shaun telling the stories interpreted in dance and song.

Under the guidance of Shaun, young and old, some in wheelchairs and others on walking frames, joined in the singing and dancing.

Shaun arrived in Yarram in 2008 as General Manager of the new Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place. It provides Koori men, on a Community Correction Order, with an opportunity to learn new skills, reconnect with, or further strengthen, their culture and participate in programs and activities to help them address their offending behaviour.

“It would be fair to say that back then there was a lot of angst in the local community about having the Aboriginal centre in their backyard,” Shaun recalled.

“I knew, given a chance, the centre would prove its value to the community and it has. And more than 600 young Koori men have volunteered to be part of it since it opened.”

In 2011, the then Chair of the YDHS, David Hill, approached Shaun to join the health service Board. Initially wary of the big commitment, he accepted. Now, after 11 years, including a term as Chair, he’s term will come to an end in June.

Shaun has spent most of his working life supporting Aboriginal people – initially as a youth worker, justice liaison officer and an ATSIC regional counsellor. He believes that Aboriginal cultural identity is crucial to change and his commitment to social justice drives him in his work as General Manager at Wulgunggo Ngalu.

He saw the Board role as providing further opportunities to help Aboriginal people – the first to improve the relationship between Wulgunggo Ngalu and the community and the second to improve the health outcomes for Aboriginal people in the area.

He now looks back proudly at having achieved this and more. “The community better understands Aboriginal people and what we are about, and helps us celebrate our achievements.”

Importantly, Wulgunggo Ngalu and YDHS have formed a unique partnership.

“We started slowly by introducing cultural talks to staff, helping them understand the barriers to Aboriginal people seeking help. That led to the service marking important occasions like Close the Gap Day and NAIDOC Week.

“The health service has delivered men’s health days at Wulgunggo Ngalu in a culturally appropriate way, where our participants can get a complete health check-up, health advice and health education.”

Shaun sees the opening of the new Integrated Healthcare Centre in 2020 at YDHS as one of his biggest achievements in his time on the board . This uniquely designed building offers the community a range of health services under the one roof – allied health, community support, GP services, mental health and pathology.

It would be fair to say that the other is embedding an Aboriginal voice into the service’s Statement of Priorities.

City born and bred, Shaun follows his grandfather’s line to the Kuku-Yalanji people. Never in their wildest dreams did he and his wife Marinda ever imagine their life would be in Yarram on Brataualung country.

Marinda was working for the Australian Embassy in Italy when Shaun broke the news about his new job and subsequent move. After two years on the other side of the world, Marinda joined Shaun. They now have four children, all born on Gunaikurnai country.

When reflecting on Close the Gap Day, Shaun remains positive.

“Change takes time although I’d like things to be faster. We have seen a lot of areas improving but we have a long way to go. We must start with correcting the wrongs of yesterday and understanding them, especially around truth telling. Once we understand, then we can all move forward together.”

As he played the didgeridoo at Thursday’s ceremony, Shaun looked immensely proud of the Koori men who were performing the traditional dances. For two of them, it was their first time dancing in public.

He recalled when he first performed in front of a crowd, albeit slightly larger. He was in a group of didgeridoo players performing at the MCG half-time entertainment  in the 1993  Essendon-Carlton grand final.  Yothu Yindi was dancing to the music behind him. He felt overawed but proud.

On Thursday, in Yarram, playing his didgeridoo, a smiling Shaun looked just as proud.