Aussie Day Bash) looked around Pioneer Bay and saw a clutch of houses and residents starved of opportunity to meet one another. So she did something about it.
SHE was a city girl until the time she dated a West Gippsland dairy farmer. The relationship fizzled out but her love for the area remained. Since then, Zena Benbow has never tired of being up close to seasonal change. She says you can’t appreciate the seasons in the city. Working in Cowes as a computer technologist three days a week she’s spoilt for choice – the mainland is so different from the island. “Then coming home at the end of the day, you turn into Kallay Drive and see the sunlight dancing across the water; it’s something to behold.”
She admits that even if someone had drawn her attention to it, she wouldn’t have taken any notice of the natural environment in Melbourne. “ I was younger and they were wilder days. You’re all about yourself, who you’re with and where you’re going.”
It was the same when, a single woman, she first arrived in Pioneer Bay. “This was the party house, the bachelorette pad,” she says, looking around her kitchen, now the epicentre of life for eight big and small people. There was no thought of marriage. Then she met Simon Mumby. Fourteen years on, the “party house” has evolved to accommodate all the changes in their lives – Simon’s two children, his grandchild and their own three.
The kids have changed everything, she says. “They’ve been a good influence on my life.”
Like others before her, she looked around Pioneer Bay and saw a clutch of houses and residents starved of opportunity to meet one another. The only public place where the community could gather in numbers was a paddock with playground equipment on it. Two parallel gravel roads served as speedways . Zena Benbow wanted a place where her kids could thrive. In Zena language, that’s short for feeling at home, getting together and having a good time.
One of her early projects was an “eighties family day” called “Decade of Decadence”. Experienced DJs, with council support, she and Simon boldly letterboxed Pioneer Bay, inviting everyone to “Bring your picnic hampers, your rugs, your smiles and your dancing shoes and join us in your 80s style clothes as we showcase our beautiful estate”. Today she’s working on Pioneer Bay’s Australia Day event – the Aussie Day Bash. From a humble start six years ago, it’s gone from strength to strength, with about 600 people attending Tuesday’s event. She’s relieved and exhausted.
But her signature project has been her work on the park committee of management. They planted Australian natives and have working bees to keep the weeds under control. Kids riding bikes on those gravel roads send chills up her spine. So they got funding for pathways. “I love seeing congo lines of scooters, skate boards and trikes stretched out through the park,” says Zena. “They can play in the park in relative safety. It’s hard to get that in the city.” Currently the committee is seeking funding for a toilet block and “adjacent community facility”.
“I’d like to think I’ve grown and evolved a bit,” she says reflectively. ”I’ve been down here for 14 years. I recognise that as a small community, we’re less likely to be considered for funding opportunities. So, okay we say, we’ll raise our own funds.”
But they’ve also written endless submissions. “My head stopped getting sore about five years ago,” says Zena, when she finally understood that it’s easier to work within the system. They’ve learnt that bureaucrats aren’t delighted by the idea of launching a toilet block, so they dress up the concept to include something slightly grander: meeting rooms, a kitchenette, a storage facility.
“That way you’re more likely to get what the community is asking you to achieve” ... even when, after months of work, the goal posts shift or there’s a change of government and you have to start all over again. “That’s my romance: everything finished and the park ready for people to use and enjoy and get together.”
“There are times when I want to throw my hands up in the air and say, ‘Okay, I give up!’ she confesses. But I’ve got three good reasons to keep going – my kids.”
In 2012 she went one step further and stood as a candidate in the council elections. She’d already announced her interest in standing when former Wonthaggi mayor and state Liberal Minister Alan Brown approached her to stand for his Reform team on a platform of reducing rates by reducing waste.
The entrance of a party ticket galvanised enormous interest in the election. At times, the ensuing political campaign became personal and vindictive.
After the shouting and the tumult died, the Reform Team got two candidates out of seven onto the council. Zena missed out.
She has no regrets about standing or her alliance with the Reform team. “At the very least no one can argue they didn’t know what we stood for! On the table for all to see, but the results indicate not what the voters of Bass Coast wanted – c’est la vie.”
Asked if she would stand for the council again, she replies “Maybe, maybe not. It would require a very strong argument to convince me to run again, especially as I've found other ways to instigate the change I still see is required.”
She’s changed in other ways, too. She’s more sensitive to what is going on around her. “I note people’s body language. I ask if they’re all right. You’ve got to be able to see when people need help and to ask for help yourself.”
She’s been regularly called on by people needing advice on family law and by victims of abuse. Confused by the legal system, many lack the self-confidence to advise their solicitor in their own best interests. With a BA majoring in media, Zena has stepped in, read the appropriate legislation and armed them with the appropriate paperwork. Her frustration is that when she then goes along to court to watch, more often than not the case is presented poorly.
So this year, in fulfilment of a long-held dream and encouraged by her solicitor employer, she’s returning to study and embarking on a law degree. “He believes I would make a decent lawyer,” she reports of her boss. “That’s a fabulous compliment.”
It’s a lot of giving. Nevertheless, she bridles at my suggestion that bringing change to this small, under-resourced community sounds like hard work.
“I love it here,” she says. “My kids can play in safety with the other kids in the neighbourhood. Our house is slowly but surely accommodating our changing demands. Pioneer Bay is the quintessential mix of a rural/urban family community.
“What's not to love?”