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International Women's Day 2016 with Marelle Thornton

For International Women’s Day (8 March 2016) we are celebrating all the women who make up the Cerebral Palsy Alliance community. We have mums, daughters, staff, carers, grandmothers, volunteers, staff, therapists, donors and supporters, who each have their own story, goals, achievements, heroes and dreams.

One woman well-known to many in the Cerebral Palsy Alliance community is Marelle Thornton AM FAICD. For more than thirty years she was the President, Chairman and Director of Cerebral Palsy Alliance, helping shape the organisation we know today. She is also mother to Katie who lives with cerebral palsy and had a career as a school teacher. In recognition of her work, Marelle was awarded the Order of Australia Medal. Even though she has retired, she continues to volunteer her services to the organisation and advocate for those living with a disability.

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, we asked Marelle about her career, her inspirations and her advice.

Q. Which woman/women inspired you? And why?

Marelle: Audrie McLeod CBE was a woman of vision and ambition for people with cerebral palsy at a time in history when people living with disability were seen differently. She was a woman ‘ahead of her time’ when it came to being a campaigner for people with disabilities; a shrewd businesswoman in a societal and corporate climate dominated by men; and a persuasive and accomplished speaker, able to garner social, moral and financial support for her mission on behalf of people with disabilities, especially those living with cerebral palsy.

The other is the Hon. Margaret Reid AO, the first female President of the Senate in Australia is a woman of the community. Her professional, political and personal achievements over many decades, read as truly inspiring. She is a woman whose influence and authenticity as a person and whose genuine concern for others define her as a ‘woman among women’. Her record of contribution to both politics and to the Australian community in general is somewhat unheralded, perhaps because of her understated demeanour and her quiet, selfless application.

Q. What are the biggest challenges that you faced as a woman during your career?

Marelle: The biggest challenges I faced as a woman, both in my own professional life as an educator and as a leader in my volunteer commitments were:

  • Recognising that try as I might, no-one can make all of the people happy all of the time.
  • Trying to convince others, by my example and experience as a woman in leadership roles, that women in general were an under-utilised resource.
  • Acknowledging that all too high expectations of myself and others could often be ‘resentments under construction’.
  • Achieving an ideal work/life balance and to bring perspective and balance to the many roles that women might play in their lives – mother, wife, professional, volunteer etc.
  • Tempering my heightened sense of obligation and duty by allowing myself “me-time”, sometimes, and not allowing my heart to always rule my head.

Q. What are some of the amazing things that you have seen women achieve at Cerebral Palsy Alliance?

Marelle: Women with cerebral palsy and other disabilities are encouraged by all at Cerebral Palsy Alliance to be the best they can be and are well-supported to follow their career aspirations, as well as their passions. Examples of such women, including clients of Cerebral Palsy Alliance, are Jan Pike - rehabilitation counsellor and Paralympian equestrian, Fiona Given – lawyer, Alexandra Green - mechanical engineer and Paralympic cyclist. As an organisation that invests in its human resources, I have witnessed firsthand the amazing opportunities that this investment has provided for women.

Q. What advice do you have for young women?

Marelle: The best advice I can offer young women generally, as well as young women with disabilities, is to give yourself permission to fly; to never underestimate the positive influence that you can exert through your personal or professional example in whatever endeavour you pursue; to always be true to yourself and never allow others to diminish your ambition or dreams.

Q. What is the best advice you have ever received?

Marelle: The best advice I was ever given was to get to know your true self, own yourself and make both a permanent work in progress.