After a year of extraordinary adversity, Australians have continued to strive to better their communities with compassion and resolve.

From supporting drought-stricken farmers to re-thinking our relationship with plastic and combating family violence, the finalists for the Australian of the Year’s Local Hero award have made their “corner of the world” a better place.

They have given shelter to those experiencing homelessness, provided education and employment opportunities for young people, and helped migrants find their feet in a new country.

Protecting doctors in a pandemic

With Gowns for Doctors, Dr Kirby White helped secure protective equipment for doctors in regional Victoria.(Supplied: Salty Dingo)

Kirby White helped to ensure the supply of crucial personal protective equipment to medical staff across Victoria.

Two weeks after opening her Bendigo clinic in March, Dr White and her colleague Nicole Townsend could see that the pandemic was going to create shortages of essential items such as medical gowns.

They asked the community for help to make 1,000 gowns for GP clinics in and around Bendigo, and raised more than $40,000 through a GoFundMe page.

The operation quickly grew to include hundreds of sewing volunteers and commercial businesses — inlcuding Dr White’s own wedding dress supplier — making and distributing the garments across the state.

Doctors told her there were times during the year when the donated gowns were the only kind they were able to source.

Gowns for Doctors has now produced more than 5,200 gowns, supplying more than 750 regional Victorian GP clinics, and has built up a stockpile for use in the event of future shortages.

Dr White said the experience had been a testament to the generosity and community spirit of regional Australians.

Caring for farming families

Chinchilla’s Natasha Johnston founded Drought Angels after hearing about how many farming families were struggling.(Supplied: Salty Dingo)

After hearing the devastating plight of so many drought-stricken farmers in regional Queensland, Natasha Johnston was inspired to do whatever she could to help.

“I almost lost my mother to suicide [so] I’ve just been in that house and I just needed to do something to stop someone else from doing that,” she told the ABC.

In 2014, the Chinchilla resident helped found Drought Angels with her friend Nicki Blackwell.

The service delivers care packages and financial assistance to farming families across the country.

In addition to essential supplies, Drought Angels also provides a listening ear for families doing it tough.

Ms Johnston has knocked on many doors herself for a cup of tea and a chat.

“I want our farmers to feel loved, I want them to feel special and know how important they are to the rest of the country,” she said.

“Just knowing that we are making a small difference in someone’s life is what gets us up every day.”

Turning plastic lids into prosthetics

Lids4Kids founder Timothy Miller has saved 30 tonnes of plastic drinking container lids from landfill.(Supplied: Lids4KidsAU)

The ACT’s Timothy Miller believes every person has the capacity to make their “corner of the world” a better place by taking small steps every day.

His desire to “rescue” plastic drinking container lids from landfill drove him to start the Lids4Kids organisation, which encourages households, schools and organisations to collect the items.

The lids are recycled into sustainable products for children, including prosthetics, school supplies and playground equipment.

“The social and health impacts of this project have been immense,” Mr Miller said.

Since Lids4Kids began 18 months ago, 30 tonnes of plastic has been collected from some 25,000 participants across Australia.

About 50,000 lids are delivered to Mr Miller’s home every week.

Mr Miller has held workshops with local schools and aged-care homes to educate Australians on the need to do more than put single-use plastics in the recycling bin.

“I hope it empowers more kids to rescue single-use plastics from their environment and re-purpose them to make their world a better place,” he said.

Helping communities end family violence

Sergeant Erica Gibson works with remote Aboriginal communities in the NT to raise awareness about family violence.(ABC News: Terry McDonald)

Working with remote communities is the best part of Erica Gibson’s job.

The Northern Territorian has been a police officer for more than 30 years and has a passion for supporting community programs that combat family violence.

Sergeant Gibson helped establish the Family Safety Framework in 2012, which provides safe homes for people experiencing domestic violence in remote communities.

She also worked with the community to organise the Nhulunbuy White Ribbon event to raise awareness of domestic violence.

These initiatives have helped empower those who experience family violence to speak up.

“People are now readily able and willing to speak about domestic violence,” Sergeant Gibson said.

However, she said, these achievements would not be possible without a strong relationship with local people.

“Community engagement is a very positive aspect of policing. It’s something I strive to achieve personally,” she said. “It’s definitely the best part of the job being in remote communities and empowering people.”

Helping others through hard times

Edna Pennicott has used her experience of personal hardship to help vulnerable Tasmanians.(Supplied: Salty Dingo)

Growing up amid personal hardship after losing her mother, Tasmania’s Edna Pennicott wished there was someone she could reach out to.

The experience inspired her to start Kingborough Helping Hands (KHH), a community organisation that delivers food and essential items to those who have fallen on hard times.

“I thought any little bit of hope and love you can give to get someone through difficult times would be much appreciated,” she said.

Through KHH, Ms Pennicott supports women’s shelters by providing household essentials, furniture and clothes for women and children escaping from domestic violence.

She also operates an after-hours food van for rough sleepers.

Ms Pennicott’s mission is to make more people aware of the “pockets of poverty” in every community.

“We can all make a difference if we just give a little bit,” she said.

Creating opportunities for young people

Former champion footballer Russell Ebert gives young South Australians opportunities for education and employment.(Supplied: Salty Dingo)

He’s considered to be one of the greatest Australian Rules footballers from South Australia and a legend of the Port Adelaide Football Club — but Russell Ebert is more than just a former elite athlete.

The four-time Magarey Medal winner — awarded to the best and fairest player in the SA Football League — Mr Ebert has led the Power Community Limited (PCL) charity for more than 20 years.

The organisation provides young South Australians with education and employment opportunities.

Mr Ebert told ABC Radio Adelaide that he realised he could use his platform as an athlete to improve the lives of others in the community.

He is particularly passionate about the charity’s Power to End Violence Against Women program, which he delivers to Year 10 students around the state.

Developed with Centacare Catholic Family Services and the SA Department for Education, the program challenges gender-based attitudes and promotes respectful relationships.

“We’ve got these bloody unacceptable [domestic violence] statistics, [so] can we influence young people who are developing relationships?” he said.

“Let’s try and guide them a bit, and if we can get a few of them to have better relationships, everyone’s going to win.”

Building bridges for new arrivals

Rosemary Kariuki helps build positive relationships between migrants and the NSW Police in Western Sydney.(Supplied: Australian of the Year Awards)

After fleeing violence in Kenya more than 20 years ago, Rosemary Kariuki faced a lonely existence as a new arrival in Australia.

The multicultural community liaison officer with Parramatta Police has used her experience to help other migrants create a community in Western Sydney.

“I don’t like seeing people going through the same things I went through, I don’t like seeing people in pain,” she said.

In her role, she assists migrants facing domestic violence, language barriers and financial distress.

“There are a lot of services in this country but many people don’t know or understand them,” Ms Kariuki said.

She also helps new arrivals build positive relationships with law enforcement.

“[Migrants and refugees] fear the police so my role is to link the police with the community … doing that drives crime down.”

In partnership with the African Women’s Group, Ms Kariuki helped to start the African Women’s Dinner Dance. Now in its 14th year, more than 400 women attend the annual event.

Rethinking how we recycle

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz’s idea to go plastic-free for July has become a world wide initiative with 326 million participants.(Supplied: Australian of the Year Awards)

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz wants people to reconsider how they use plastic in their everyday lives.

Ten years ago, the West Australian challenged her family to go plastic-free for the month of July.

Today, Plastic-Free July is a worldwide initiative with an estimated 326 million participants.

“So many of us are lulled into a false sense of security when we recycle,” she said.

The more that can be done to reduce the amount of plastic consumed, she said, the greater the positive impact there will be on the environment.

“We tell our kids to ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ but we just focus on the recycle bit,” she said.

“It’s not about swapping one thing for another, actually using less is really important.”

Ms Prince-Ruiz has worked with state governments and business leaders on initiatives to reduce single-use plastics.

She is also on the board of the government’s Container Deposit Scheme — a new recycling program for WA.