EcoHouse Memories – Stories Under The Tree Part 3

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 3 of EcoHouse Memories – Stories Under The Tree, featuring: Jan Cossar, Didi Salamy, Fam Charko, Phil Wierzbowski, Frida Elrich, Renee Walton and Zaylee Saint-James Turner, EcoDog Loki and Neil Blake.

Jan Cossar’s first memory of the EcoCentre was being asked to help the Committee develop the Strategic Plan in 2015. Jan says, “My enduring memories are of the level of commitment from the Committee. They understand the role of governance to support the staff, the volunteers and the work. I think we’ve been really lucky with the Board. I’d like to congratulate President Pam O’Neil because she has done an exceptional job. And I’d also like to say the same to April Seymore and Neil Blake who understand the importance of stewardship and leadership. We have worked as a collective. 

“I remember we did a street litter audit. I was so disgusted by the amount of litter on the curb and in the grass…We also did a nurdle/microplastic survey. So whenever I take my kids, friends and relatives to the beach now, we always search for nurdles.”

“Those experiences are really powerful to help understand the critical nature of what we are doing. We’re applying theory to practice, and our taking people in as volunteers is a real strength of the organisation. We’re in an exciting place. It’s been a long and lovely journey that continues. So let’s carry the EcoCentre’s essence of kindness, smartness and goodness into the future.”

Didi Salamy has been in charge of the EcoCentre’s communications for just over a year. She started during the pandemic and still feels pretty new. Didi says, “I feel like I’ve been robbed because a lot of my time has been working from home.” Everyone groans in understanding. 

Didi continues, “but my favourite times have been when we’ve all been together, like the team meetings and the garden party. That’s one of my favourite memories, being outside when someone will be saying something profound and suddenly you hear a bird constantly interrupting. Because that – in a way, reminds you of why you’re doing the work you do. I’m really grateful and excited to be working here, there are a lot of feelings.” 

Fam Charko can’t believe she’s in her eighth year at the EcoCentre. Fam says, “It doesn’t feel that long, but on the other hand it feels way longer than that. I’m the Marine Biologist now, but I’ve done pretty much every job at the EcoCentre, except the EO!” Until April Seymore chimes in, “you were Acting EO once, you can tick that off.” 

Fam remembers, “one of the best education sessions I’ve ever designed. We were having an excursion here in the gardens during Autumn and we were doing scientific drawings of mushrooms. The kids were about nine or ten years old. I was thinking, how can we demonstrate how mushrooms work? I wanted to show that when it rains, they grow really quick. And so we tried it with tampons with the strings snipped off. When you put them upright in a saucer of water they expand and actually look like mushrooms! 

“I’ve done the Marine Biology role for a few years now and it’s just been amazing, working closely with Neil Blake and now the Impact Team. What gets me out of bed every morning is the atmosphere that we have here. I’d have beers with all of my colleagues, there’s no-one I dislike and everyone gets along so well. That’s a powerful thing at the EcoCentre and one of the reasons why I’m still here. One of the other reasons I’m still here is the volunteers. I get to work with citizen scientists that are so passionate about the environment that they will spend five hours a day, bent over, sitting in the lab wearing headlamps and reading glasses, sorting microplastics from organic materials. Those are the people who inspire me. They do that in their free time when they could be in the pub with their mates. But they choose to be here helping us with our projects, because they want to see change.

Apart from Neil Blake, Phil Wierzbowski possibly pre-dates everyone else at the EcoCentre. Phil admits, “I’ve been around for a long time. My wife found this job for me and it fit all my skill-sets so perfectly. 

“Neil and I have worked on many citizen science gigs together, including sea shell surveys. I suspect that Neil’s got the largest data set in Port Phillip. It’s an amazing body of work. Another activity that was heaps of fun was something called Penguin Panic. It was a board game that we created based on talking to primary school students about what they enjoyed about games. We came back here and teased out the ideas. The board game included oil spills, piers and plastics.

“I hold the whole EcoCentre and your achievements in high regard.”

Neil offers his memories of working with Phil. “Phil introduced me to Aunty Dot Peters, the Elder who made the Victorian Aboriginal Remembrance Service possible. The Country Connect project was another interesting initiative Phil worked on.” 

Phil responds, “we’d bounce ideas off each other, we shared similar passion and interest in a whole lot of areas. I clicked straight away. I didn’t have to explain why it’s important to have Traditional Owners as partners not stakeholders. Neil got it straight away.”

Frida Erlich feels like she goes back through the mists of EcoCentre time. She says, “perhaps not 60,000 years but at least twenty. I was a councillor on the first City of Port Phillip council when it transitioned from being St Kilda Council. 

“Neil Blake was working as the Environment Officer at the council and there was a new CEO, Anne Dunne. She had divided things into portfolios but there was no Environment portfolio. I thought, ‘Surely it’s important to have someone who cares for nature and the environment?’. So I said, ‘I want there to be an Environment portfolio!’ And one was created. 

“I was involved in the creation of the EcoHouse. It was all about demonstrating sustainability. I helped interview the architect, Peter Ho. He integrated the goals of sustainability. He helped us work out would we have grey water, or black water?  Solar was very new and we were excited about these concepts. 

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with current President, Pam O’Neil. She’s the only person I know who can chair a meeting and take the notes at the same time!

“This a tough time for the environment, so whatever you do sing it loud and clear! This new building will give an opportunity to invite more people in. We’ve all got an onus to carry out this work not just for the children but for everyone whether they’re connected with the EcoCentre or not. It’s a constant fight but I’m sure we can win!

“Neil used to say this notion about ecological time; things will happen but they may take time.”

Renée Walton has been the EcoCentre’s Relationship Manager at the City of Port Phillip for the last five months in the second half of 2021. Renee says, “I’m your partner in making sure that the EcoCentre’s voice is heard at council. There’s a lot going on with the re-development and delivery of programs. 

“It’s been great to have a little more involvement. I’ve been with council now for about eight years and have always sat on the periphery. I’ve been a Port Phillip resident for twelve years and have swung past on many occasions. It’s always felt like a place where people are really committed to creating a community that cares for the planet and the Bay. Creating a whole generation of kids who will turn into adults who care just as much, if not more. 

“I’m really excited by what this next chapter might be for the EcoCentre. Yes, there will be that transition to Cora Graves Centre; moving tables to different locations to figure out what works and I’m sure that the internet will drop out once or twice. But there are advocates at council, not only for what you are doing, but to hold us accountable for what we’re doing and funding. I just wish you all the very best.”

Zaylee Saint-James Turner’s journey with the EcoCentre started when she was scrolling through Instagram one day. Zaylee says, “I saw the role of Community Engagement Officer advertised and I thought, ‘oh that’s an awesome job, I’d never get that. I was working in similar roles. I knew about this place but I’m from the western suburbs, so I hadn’t really been here. 

“I remember the day I did the interview. As soon as I walked in the door I felt the vibe and I thought, ‘this is the place where I want to be.’ I remember these beautiful, welcoming smiles and all of my anxiety about the interview just went away. Then I got the job.

“I feel like I was only working here a couple of months and then we went into our first lockdown, when the pandemic hit in 2020. I do feel like I was robbed of my time here because the majority was working from home. But I also got to know everyone so well working online. I didn’t miss out on the opportunity to feel part of this organisation. 

Zaylee continues, “I met so many amazing people; staff and volunteers. On my very last day with the garden volunteers, we were all sitting around and Jo Neil brought out a beautiful stone from her collection. She passed it around for the volunteers to put their love into. That was just a lovely way to part and to say goodbye to them. I still have that stone and I bring it with me to work to remind me of my time here and the wonderful people. 

“The EcoCentre is a one of a kind place. There’s something about it that’s hard to put into words. It brings in the most amazing people and I really miss it.” April finishes, “We miss you too, Zaylee. And I feel that your story with the EcoCentre is not finished.” 

Canine therapist, Dr. EcoDog Loki’s story with the EcoCentre started eight years ago when he was just twelve weeks old. Loki’s human, Fam Charko, kindly told Loki’s story on his behalf. Fam says, “When I moved here from the Netherlands, I wanted to get a dog. But there was the issue of working, you can’t leave them at home all day, every day. 

“So I went home to my partner and said, ‘I’m going to get a dog. I’m not going to ask for permission to bring him into work, I’m just going to wing it. But I think it will be ok.’ I even did some research, because if someone complained about it I needed to back myself up with some solid science. I looked up all these research papers that said that office dogs can lower staff stress levels by 11% on average. It was lucky that Loki was an extremely cute puppy. Nobody ever complained.  

“Loki is a very smart dog. I had grand plans for him to do skits with Captain Trash around litter for the school groups here, with Loki performing some kind of educational activity. So I taught him how to pick up plastic bottles and put them into the recycling bag. He was doing a really good job. And then I discovered he’s really scared of children. He was scared of children until he was five years old.  His career of being an educational dog had to be restricted to social media videos with no children in them. That career was very short lived.”

April Seymore adds, “Loki is known world-wide. When I’ve gone to water keeper summits across the USA, and even in Kenya, people would say, ‘oh, you work with that dog, right?.’ They would look at my bio and then be immediately drawn to this other blue-eyed creature.”

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.