Motor Neurone Disease advocate and sufferer Dr Justin Yerbury was named Wollongong’s Citizen of the Year.
The internationally renowned MND researcher was recognised at the Australia Day Awards ceremony on Tuesday night.
There was a roar of applause and a standing ovation when Dr Yerbury was named the recipient of the top gong.
Born and bred in Wollongong, Dr Yerbury once played professional basketball for the Illawarra Hawks only to give up his sporting career and return to university when his family was touched by multiple motor neurone disease diagnoses.
In 2016, he was diagnosed with the disease.
For over a decade, Dr Yerbury has been actively involved in motor neurone disease advocacy, fundraising and research. Not only has he worked internationally, but has built a world recognised motor neurone disease research group in the Illawarra.
Mr Yerbury, who spoke through his computer, said he was “very humble and proud” to be the recipient of the award.
“The Wollongong community has supported me more than I could possibly give back,” he said.
Mr Yerbury thanked the community for their “overwhelming support” in helping him fundraise for a laboratory for his research as well as his wheelchair.
“I want to thank my family,” he said. “And to my wife Rachel. You are the strongest and most amazing person I know. I would not be here if it was not for you.”
Some attendees eyes were teary listening to Mr Yerbury’s speech.
Mr Yerbury also thanked Wollongong City Council for the recognition, state and federal MPs for their support as well as the University of Wollongong where is conducted his research.
MND is a baffling degenerative disease in which sufferers progressively lose the use of their limbs, and ability to speak, swallow and breathe, while their mind remains intact.
In October local firefighters climbed up more than 100 stairs in the Sydney Tower Eye during the Firies Climb for MND fundraiser.
Other award winners:
The Senior Citizen of the Year was awarded to Dr James Turner for his dedication to the Wollongong community as a general practitioner at Wollongong Hospital for more than 60 years.
Refugee advocate, Narayan Khanal was awarded the Young Citizen of the Year Award. Born in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal, Mr Khanal resettled in Australia and has become an inspirational advocate for young migrant people in the community.
The outstanding achievement award went to Andrew and Lyndell Clark, the founders of the LEGO Robotics Tournament in Wollongong, for engaging children in STEM programs.
Outstanding innovation was awarded to PlastIcs - preventing litter and stormwater trash. The group is run by students from Illawarra Christian School who are passionate about the marine environment. The group has worked hard to educate students and families about the impact of soft plastics on the environment.
Peter Fitzgerald was awarded the sports award. Mr Fitzgerald is a founding member and president of the ‘Men of League’ charity.
The community group award winner was Green Connect. The organisation has advanced the employment of former refugees by providing training, support and paid works. It also prevents waste going to landfill.
Dulcie Dal Molin was awarded the arts and cultural achievement award. She has been a committed member of community and cultural organisations for more than 50 years. Recently, she has volunteered for the Red Point Artists Association.
Special award winners:
Five special awards were also presented. Joe Alves was recognised for his advocacy work in multiculturalism. Wendy Akhurst and Lynda Murphy were presented with an award for their service to Kieraview Singers.
Alfred Chidembo was recognised for his volunteer work throughout the Illawarra. Richard Tognetti was awarded for this contribution to the music industry. Rugby league player Damien Cook was recognised for this commitment to surf lifesaving and rugby league.