When Green Connect started life to create employment and reduce landfill just over a decade ago people said it would never work because the problem was too big.
But on Friday the Illawarra Business Excellence in Sustainability Award was recognition it has.
For the last four years that has been under the leadership of 2021 Illawarra Business Awards Outstanding Young Business Leader Kylie Flament who said the recognition was because of the 600 people who have worked at the organisation over the last decade, the people who worked tirelessly to get it up and running and the thousands who have supported it ever since.
Ms Flament said 2021 has been a very tough year for the social enterprise but during the COVID-19 lockdown it hung in there and found ways to innovate.
On Friday night Business Illawarra recognised Green Connect for the way it employs young people and refugees in jobs, helps the community by reducing waste and growing fair food, and for the way caring for people in the community is woven into the fabric of it's operations which include an sustainable urban farm, op shop, zero waste services, staffing and recruitment solutions and gardening and landscaping services.
As a result of those operations in 2021 Green Connect kept 157 tonnes of waste from landfill, grew and distributed 35 tonnes of fresh organic food and sold over 40 tonnes of used items from its op-shop.
"11 years ago Green Connect was started to solve three problems in the Illawarra," Ms Flament said.
"We wanted to help solve unemployment, particularly for young people and refugees, we wanted to help deal with the unprecedented levels of waste going to landfill and we wanted to address the unsustainable food system we have here.
"At the time people said it was crazy, people said it wouldn't work, people said these things were too big to tackle and people said who are you in Wollongong to solve these things."
But Ms Flament said despite the challenges of a statewide lockdown Green Connect still managed to win an international award and was recently visited by Australia's Governor General David Hurley who reached out wanting to do a farm tour to meet those involved in the organisation and see the work they do for himself.
She said both events made everyone involved in Green Connect feel like what they do each day was really important.
"For the Commonwealth Secretary General's Award for Innovation in Sustainable Development we were chosen from 54 countries with 2.6 billion people," she said.
"They looked around the world and they said where are the best initiatives for sustainable development. And they chose Green Connect in little old Wollongong."
Ms Flament was personally awarded Outstanding Young Business Leader of the Year at Friday night's Illawarra Business Awards for her drive and desire to protect and improve the community and the environment. She said her motivation and default answer was always to say "yes" if it involved something that was good for people and the planet and there was a way to fund it and make it happen.
A great example of her doing that by thinking outside the square happened this year when the COVID lockdown stopped two thirds of Green Connect's business units from being able to operate and the impact on more than 100 young people and former refugees was significant.
"Our staff were really struggling and people in our community were really struggling. We had a whole op-shop full of goods and we said why don't we do something good with that," Ms Flament said.
I just want to say Wollongong you are bloody amazing.- Kylie Flament
So they decided to distribute care packages to the doors of people who were cold and hungry, didn't have jobs to go to and were home schooling their children.
Green Connect asked them individually what they wanted and needed.
"We thought the lockdown would last a few weeks and we would help a couple of dozen people," Ms Flament said.
"What we didn't realise was a lot of the bigger charities and bigger food charities had closed their doors. So what started off as a little "say yes" project turned into 3000 care packages, frozen meals, food hampers and fruit and vegetable boxes."
Ms Flament said Green Connect was able to do so much because of such because Illawarra people were so generous.
"We said to the community can you chip in 40 bucks to help us help someone," she said.
"People did and they kept stepping up. As the need grew so did the donations. And I just want to say Wollongong you are bloody amazing. Thank you very much."
"I want people to know how proud everyone should be of what has been achieved at Green Connect. It is not one person or one group of people. It has literally been the whole community over many years getting behind it and adding to it in their own special way."
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