From the moment you meet Judy Ryan her passion for the neighbourhood she fondly refers to as ‘my village’ is impossible to ignore. “I just love this grungy area; I love walking out of my front gate and going ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen today.'”
As it turns out, this love of spontaneity has proved a valuable asset for Judy’s involvement with her neighbourhood and has led her to become one of its most valued members.
The seventh of eight children and hailing from Wangaratta, Judy is driven by a need to feel connected to those around her.
Warm and bubbly, it’s not hard to feel connected to her. “I just love knowing people,” she says with a shrug.
“Having lived in the country, I was very involved in the community … my parents were very involved – we’ve always had a sense of getting your energy from the community.”
So when Judy and her husband John settled in Abbotsford five years ago, the first thing she did was seek out a place for herself in her new neighbourhood.
“One of the things I wanted to do was create community for myself.”
She began by volunteering as a mentor with Yarra Community Friends. Then there was a stint in the Abbotsford Convent’s choir. But Judy’s greatest act of community involvement began last year in July 2016.
It was a typical Melbourne Sunday she says; cool but clear, not a cloud in the sky. Judy was on her way out and in the laneway behind her home, a young man lay overdosed on the concrete.
This has become so common that Judy is often afraid to leave her home – not out of concern for her own safety, but for the wellbeing of those she refers to as her ‘regulars’: the individuals using her laneway as their own injecting facility.
Upon leaving to meet me, she explains, there was someone using her laneway to inject. She has become so involved in the lives of addicts her GP has advised her to be vaccinated against hepatitis.
Not one to be passive, Judy reached out to her council and after failing to get results, decided to run herself as a single-issue candidate. She received more than 600 primary votes, putting her on the map and on top of various organisations’ contact lists.
After being inundated with emails from interest groups across the Yarra, she noticed one from Victoria Street Drug Solutions.
Judy picked up the phone and arranged to meet them the next day, and became involved instantly. Her first order of business was to instil her community values into the organisation, which she did by changing the name.
Judy is now secretary of Residents for Victoria Street Drug Solutions (RVSDS) – a community-led initiative campaigning for the introduction of a supervised injecting facility into the community.
After touring Sydney’s Kings Cross injecting facility, Judy decided “I want one of these in my backyard” and began the push along with RVSDS’s other members: “I just felt the residents didn’t have a voice”.
RVSDS has become that voice and Judy is its loudest member. “We often call Judy the Erin Brockovich of North Richmond. She’s really helped bring a spotlight to what is going on here,” says Penny Francis of North Richmond Community Health.
“She is genuine, generous and has true community spirit – around her kitchen table strangers become friends,” says Kylie Troy-West, one of Judy’s fellow RVSDS members. “There’s that sense of dedication to her community and the drive to act in their benefit.”
When our conversation turns to the addicts there’s no bitterness or judgement, only maternal concern, and an empathy coming from personal experience. Having lost two nephews to heroin addiction, Judy is no stranger to the suffering families affected by drug abuse. She believes, if they had had access to a supervised injecting facility they would have been saved.
After our meeting, Judy takes me on a walk around her neighbourhood; we visit local injecting and dealing hotspots. It’s a tour Judy has conducted many times with various politicians and journalists to highlight the need for injecting facilities, “I like people coming out to see for themselves,” she says.
“Education is key,” she tells me, and the streets speak for themselves. Stepping into one commonly frequented car park, we witness someone shooting up. Syringes and cotton swabs litter the ground.
“Imagine overdosing in a place like this,” Judy reflects as we stand in the falling rain, among piles of rubbish and muddy puddles. But she’s optimistic RVSDS’s efforts will end that possibility: “I’m so full of hope,” she tells me.
Judy doesn’t want recognition or credit for her efforts, but her dedication shouldn’t go unrecognised. Since becoming involved Judy has put her life on hold.
She still works three days a week at a school in Brighton, but it’s clear her work with RVSDS is her true passion, and she is determined to see her project through, “mum would say ‘you should never die wondering'”.
It’s clear that though Judy may be keen to return to her everyday life, she has no plans of quietening down until she’s achieved a better environment for all of her village.
Residents of Victoria Street Drug Solutions will hold their inaugural March to Stay Alive on August 27 in anticipation of International Overdose Awareness Day to raise awareness and funds.
Written by Alice Wilson