I rise to remember Chris Stokman, whose contribution to our community will continue to inspire her friends and peers in the community sector for many years to come.
Chris started her working life in a typing pool and then passed through the Public Service, working in Medicare and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, before finding her vocation in the community sector.
As her younger brother Michael Cheyne explains:
Chris gave without thought of reward no matter the challenges in her own life. She could never afford to buy a house. Many of the cars she owned were, well, old wrecks. She never collected a fat pay cheque, never had a big bank balance. Yet she was always there for others.
But Chris leaves behind the love and respect she earned through a life well lived.
Thinking about how Chris discovered her true vocation at the Early Morning Centre in recent years makes me realise it has always been in her nature to put others before herself and help those in need.
The Early Morning Centre was established in 2005 to provide a safe place for Canberra's most vulnerable people. And under Chris's leadership, for nine years from 2007, that is what it did. Chris and her colleagues shaped a place of acceptance and respect, a hub of advocacy for those who came through its doors.
Providing free breakfasts is a core activity, but Chris was always looking for new services that would benefit the guests.
Under Chris's leadership, the Early Morning Centre grew into a true community services hub, with services ranging from shower and laundry facilities to legal and medical support.
But Chris was always also looking to provide that vital, intangible support provided by inclusion in a community. Ongoing activities at the centre include a footy tipping competition run each year by one of the guests, art activities and the Jumpin' Gateway Singers.
Chris realised how important sharing ideas and enjoyment is for creating common ground and belonging. The respect and affection of her colleagues is a testament to her character, but also to her working philosophy of absolute focus on the Early Morning Centre's guests.
As Margaret Watt puts it, Chris's first response to any proposal would always be, 'How will this affect the guests?' She would weigh all suggestions with them in mind.
My office has tried to make a habit of supporting Chris's work by taking a group of Labor Party volunteers along every now and then to cook a barbecue lunch for the centre's guests. It is a practical gesture. We bring the food, the Early Morning Centre provides the barbecue, and the guests get a good meal and see a few different faces.
It’s a simple and uncomplicated offering, inspired and guided by Chris's own approach to supporting our vulnerable Canberrans.
There are many others in our community and beyond who have been similarly impressed and inspired by Chris's character. Karyn Walker, who worked with Chris on the Early Morning Centre's board, said:
Chris was such a strong and inspiring force for good in this world.
Whenever I would get a little bogged down in my day-to-day stuff, I only needed to have a cuppa with Chris to put everything back into perspective and gain a new burst of motivation.
Former Prime Minister, the Hon. Kevin Rudd, said:
I remember a number of times helping out on a number of mornings at the Centre with her when PM. A good human being. A Christian in daily life. The hardest challenge of all.
Peter Gordon, the Director of Economic Futures Australia, said:
... Chris was a wonderful person, so selfless and she created something that had never been seen in Canberra.
Carrie Leeson, Chief Executive Officer of Lifeline, said:
... One of earth's angels. I know my team are reeling from this loss ...
Chris's brother recognises the qualities that helped her build, and build on, so many human connections:
I know that if ever I find myself being too harsh, too impatient, too selfish, or just too plain cheeky, it will be Chris's voice that brings me back, that lets the light in.
And I know the Centre will continue as Chris would have wanted. And in every breakfast served, in every life touched, will be a memory of the compassionate human being she was.
Margaret Watt said:
When two Early Morning Centre volunteers visited Chris in hospital – this was Monday of last week, on the day before she died – the conversation was about the success of the recent Early Morning Centre fundraiser, and planning ahead for the Early Morning Centre Christmas Lunch. She was always thinking of the guests.
Chris Stokman was a true Canberran. She loved Canberra and never wanted to live anywhere else.
She had made a career change, and it is one that should inspire all of us to do a better job in our lives, to reach out to the most vulnerable, and to see those who are doing it tough as people just like us, who need a friendly word and a helping hand—never to be pitied and never to be scorned; always to be respected.
She is survived by her mother, her brother, her daughter and her three grandchildren.