EcoHouse Memories – Stories Under The Tree Part 2

In February 2022, after two decades of success and growth the EcoCentre farewelled the humble brick EcoHouse as it prepared to redevelop a purpose-built and sustainable building on the same site. People gathered under the tree to share their memories, and to celebrate the EcoHouse Cottage, this organisation, and the people. 

This is Part 2 of EcoHouse Memories – Stories Under The Tree, featuring: Ian Gray AM, Graham Chappell, Marcus Gwynne, Jo Samuel-King, David Giles, Lisa Horler, Nadav Zisin and April Seymore

Ian Gray has just joined the Management Committee in 2021. Ian tells us, “I’ve been living in the area for a long time with my family and I’ve walked through these glorious gardens for many, many years. Most of my environmental work has been done down on the Peninsula at Blairgowrie and the conservational group down there.”

“I’ve got a love of the Bay and I’ve always been interested in this centre’s focus on the Bay. I’ve said to myself many times, ‘I must get engaged here, it looks wonderful’. And it is. So it’s a great pleasure to be now involved. I have a legal background, so I’m contributing where I can.”

Graham Chappell has been part of the EcoCentre for so long that he can’t remember when he first started. “I bumped into Neil Blake, the Baykeeper, who gave us all the encouragement to start up Beach Patrol. And now we’ve got around 30 groups around the Bay and 30 groups with Love Our Street. That’s thanks to the support and encouragement that Neil gave us.”

Neil shares, “the Beach Patrol has been a great success. It is a great example of a community initiative that’s grown from a passionate group.”

Marcus Gwynne has a fairly new association with the EcoCentre through his role as Project Manager for the Elsternwick Park Nature Reserve where he is helping to create a natural space out of a former golf course. Marcus says, “What I love and inspires me is the passion that everyone brings here. I love the ethos of the EcoCentre. It creates space for everyone to get involved and do their own thing. It doesn’t try and dictate what people are supposed to do. It creates a safe space for everyone to do what inspires them.”

Jo Samuel-King is a Bayside City Councillor and the mother of the EcoHouse. Jo says, “I remember Earthcare St Kilda, this was our meeting place. I recall talking about the whole concept of the EcoCentre with Neil and Freda Erlich, who was a City of Port Phillip Councillor. At the same time a few of us had this crazy idea that this could be an EcoHouse, a model in environment and sustainable building. I remember all the crazy ideas where we talked about a roof where you could see the stars. We argy bargy-ed over whether we should have a dishwasher or not. Then we had to get the money for it. Once, when John Thwaites was visiting, he asked, ‘is there any money for this idea?’ I said, ‘No, but it will come!’. And it did. The budget was a grand total of $120,000 to retrofit this building. 

“I remember being very pregnant and painting the building. We were using nice, safe, environmentally sustainable paints. I remember breastfeeding at Committee meetings, and having a six week old baby at the opening of the EcoHouse, where we gathered under this tree. I’m so glad this tree is staying, it’s a wonderful thing.”

“Youth Wildlife Ambassador, Gio Fitzpatrick, and I started to do things like the Friends of Elster Creek. Gio popped around to my house one day and took us up to the old golf course. I was stunned by this amazing place. We heard that its future was up in the air. So Marcus Gwynne organised Gio and we roped in April Seymore as well. I remember the night when the Council made its decision to turn it into Elsternwick Park Nature Reserve and, of course, the community celebration when it opened. The EcoCentre is such a wonderful organisation that has facilitated so many good things and it’s a real privilege to come to this point together.”

David Giles’s history with the EcoCentre goes back a long time when he started off as a volunteer, working in the garden in the early 2000s. Dave says, “I started with a guy called Geoff Barry, who was the President at the time. Neil Blake just had one little computer on his desk with dial-up internet. When Neil was on the internet, no one could make a phone call! It was really stone-age times, wasn’t it?

“I’ve got IT skills, so I managed to transform the computer network side of things. We went through all phases of upgrading the computers and the website. People would give me transcripts and I’d have to enter it into DreamWeaver and upload it to the website. It’s all completely changed now. 

“I remember all the diverse people coming through, a fantastic bunch of people.” Neil adds, “It’s your ability to stay calm Dave that’s kept the show on the road.” Dave replies, “Yep, don’t panic. Whatever you do, don’t panic.”

Lisa Horler has been in the role of Manager of Operations and Community Action for about two months, starting at the end of 2021. Lisa says, “My father was born in St Kilda in the 1930s. He was a great lover of the Bay and he passed that onto me. My partner grew up in Elwood. I’ve had a long association with the area. “When my daughter was looking to do work experience, I was working at the ABC and doing lots of research into organisations around Australia, because I was working on the Gardening Australia program. I kept thinking, ‘gee that EcoCentre sounds pretty good’. So I sent in my daughter as a spy. Every day she would report back, ‘I made this nest box today with this really cool guy called Gio, he’s amazing. And then this really old guy took me down to the beach.” Lisa stops to wait for the laughter to die down. 

“I thought, this sounds like a great organisation. So when I was looking to move onto the ABC I just kept looking to see if there were any jobs at the EcoCentre. And then this position came up. I was very happy to come and work for this organisation located in this place where my father used to play as a child.”

Nadav Zisin’s job, as the Community Engagement Coordinator, is to connect people to see how they can work together. And that’s what he’s been doing at the EcoCentre since May 2021. Nadav says, “This is a place where people look out for each other. It was tough during Covid, but this was the perfect place to be. 

“I remember when I was a kid in St Kilda Park primary school Neil Blake used to come down to our school and teach us about composting, the impact of litter and things like that. Those memories stuck with me for a long time…Seven years ago, when I was studying community development work with a background as a Youth Worker, I had to do a work placement…The City of Port Phillip recommended the EcoCentre and that was a dream come true. After my placement with the EcoCentre had finished, the EcoCentre offered me a little job. Everything I wanted to happen was happening!”

“Back in 2017, Neil called me and said, ‘I’ve got this idea for a song’. We collaborated and made a track called ‘A little bit of litter’. I was MC Guttermouth and it went viral.” April Seymore adds, “It would have had millions of views. It was tweeted around Europe by waste organisations and was played by Fed Square.” Nadav continues, “I’ve got cousins up in Queensland who are teachers and tell me this has been their song that they use to bring all the kids in from lunch. They’ve been using it for years now!” 

MC Guttermouth starts out as a shameless litterer, but soon learns the error of his ways. Marine Biologist, Fam Charko adds, “You should have seen Nadav picking up everything afterwards and making sure it went in the bin!” Nadav reflects, “that was a great experience. It’s been wonderful to be part of the EcoCentre over these years. It’s such a supportive culture.”

“Neil once described that the EcoCentre is like a bicycle, anyone can pick it up and start riding it. The EcoCentre is here and it’s possible for anyone to get involved in one way or another. It’s always moving and could go in any direction. I think that’s kind of awesome and I’ve used that ever since in volunteering inductions.”

April Seymore first stepped into this garden in 2009. Over the last 13 years, April has worn many hats at the EcoCentre, from volunteer to Education Program Leader, and has finally settled on being the Executive Officer for the last 7 years. 

April says, “I’ve been here for about half the life of the EcoCentre. When we found my initial application to volunteer, in the spot where you tick the time slots where you’re available, I’d just put an infinity symbol. Neil Blake wrote, ‘keep this one!’. “I found the place because I smelled something I wanted to eat! I was just walking down the street when I followed my nose like a cartoon Pepe Le Pew. It turned out to be Giovanna’s Vegelicious stall on the north deck of the EcoCentre. It was the EcoCentre’s 10th birthday and there were crocheted flags and a Russian choir singing on the deck. 

“The EcoHouse kitchen was a place where people would wander in around this table and sit down and have a cuppa and a yarn. Maybe it was hard to get things done, but it was about the relationship building. Slowly over time, more people kept coming, the classes grew bigger. The kitchen table had to be moved outside under the tree and we had to build extra desks…We’re lucky enough to work on our passion. Over the years, we’ve done amazing things together with the staff, the Committee and volunteers.” 

“Standing under the tree, this gathering place, reminded us how important this centre is and how transformative are its programs for all of us. It is a powerful memory for me to stand under this tree, in a circle like this, and remember why. How exciting is it for us who love the planet that more and more people, especially young people, want to gather together to do that work? I’m glad that pieces of this building will be part of that and that people in the community will continue to come along. The flip side of that is when people hear about us they say, ‘you do all of that in that building?’”

Fam Charko agrees, “our energy has outgrown this space. People are expecting it to look like a large structure, because our impact and networks are so big. I’m very excited to have the building grow into the shoes of what the EcoCentre has become over the last 21 years. Like a spider crab moulting into a larger version of itself.”

Have some memories at the EcoHouse Cottage that you’d like to share with us? Open up our interactive online time capsule to start reminiscing.

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The EcoCentre acknowledges the Kulin Nations, including the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung language group, traditional custodians of the land on which we are located.

We pay respects to their Elders past and present, and extend that respect to other First Nations and Elder members of our multicultural community.