In a nod to a lifetime of uninterrupted, extraordinary service to Aboriginal people and communities, Uncle Frank Laxton of the Gunditjmara nation has been awarded a Council of the Ageing Victorian Senior Achiever Award.
For over thirty years, the respected Indigenous elder has played an integral role in Ballarat's diverse Aboriginal community, focused on breaking the cycle of disadvantage that so often accompanies intergenerational trauma.
"The one thing you never think when you're helping people is that you're doing it to get an award," Uncle Frank said. "It's a shock to the system, but a good one."
Uncle Frank, who grew up at the Framlingham reserve in Warrnambool, moved to Ballarat with his wife, Rhonda Laxton, in 1990 to be closer to family, after spending several years in Melbourne.
Among the first things he did upon arriving was volunteer with the Aboriginal Community Justice Panel (CJP), an organisation committed to supporting the welfare of Indigenous people in contact with the criminal legal system.
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It was there Uncle Frank discovered, if he hadn't already, his winning combination of infinite compassion and generosity. As a crime prevention officer with the CJP, he visited Indigenous prisoners, re-connecting them with their culture, community and abandoned sense of self-worth.
"He would go and visit prisoners, talk to them and when they were eventually released, he would drive them home at all hours of the night, even if 'home' happened to be in Mildura," Ms Laxton said.
Remarkably, Uncle Frank's work with Indigenous prisoners continued even when his official association with the CJP ceased and, to this day, he still visits prisons despite being retired.
"With the boys, I don't care what they've done," he said. "All I want to know is what they're going to do when they get out - whether they're going to go down the right track, that's all I care about."
Debbie Callister, an Aboriginal Wellbeing Officer at Langi Kal Kal Prison, said Uncle Frank's eye for the broken wing naturally endeared him to young Indigenous prisoners.
"Just this week one of our newest young prisoners hopped on to Zoom with Uncle Frank for the first time," Ms Callister said. "And after the meeting finished, he came out with the widest grin you've ever seen."
"Uncle Frank's an inspiration; he goes above and beyond and he does it because of his love of our culture, our people. Years of structured life in prison means a lot of Aboriginal people, when they're released, feel frightened and isolated and it's Uncle Frank who fills that void."
By dint of his humble disposition, Uncle Frank was adept at shrugging off suggestions his efforts to help his community are particularly noteworthy.
When asked what inspired his immovable resolve to reduce the recidivism rate of Aboriginal prisoners, he pointed to nothing but their evident need.
"They're scared of going back to where they come from (sic), where the trouble was, and that's why we need to help them," he said. "It's so they know we care."
Young Indigenous man, Trevor, of the Barkindji tribe in Mildura, knows first-hand the value of Uncle Frank's care and concern for prisoners. The pair, who instantly bonded, met each other at Langi Kal Kal Prison in 2015.
"I can't really put into words how much Uncle Frank means to me," Trevor said. "I just look at him now like a father figure and a true, respected elder of the community."
When Trevor was released, Uncle Frank picked him up and organised accommodation for him in Ballarat due to his fears a return to Mildura would see Trevor eventually re-incarcerated.
He also took Trevor out for daily drives around Ballarat, helped Trevor reintegrate back into the community and re-connect with culture.
"I honestly don't know where I'd be now without Uncle Frank," Trevor said.
Beyond his work with Indigenous prisoners, Uncle Frank also spent 18 years on the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-operative board, and, with his wife, cared for 30 Indigenous foster children over the years.
The Victorian government said this year's awards were intended to acknowledge the resilience, compassion and commitment of senior Victorians.
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