“When I was a girl, I dreamed big dreams about the future I would create.”
This is the opening line of the new ECH television commercial that shows a woman walking past a wall of photos capturing special memories from her life.
While it may sound like a script, for the star of the commercial, Helen Oxenham, it couldn’t be more true.
As a child, it was the violent actions of her father towards her mother Delia, herself and her siblings that made Helen dream of a world where family violence would not be tolerated.
Helen has spent her life advocating for families affected by domestic violence, and at 90 years old, she is still fighting – this time to raise $250,000 for the creation of the first public memorial space in Australia to acknowledge the trauma and loss of those affected by domestic family violence.
“Last year when I heard 56 women were killed by a partner in 2020, I wanted to cry because it is still happening today.”
Helen moved to Australia from Ireland with her husband and the couple opened a shop in Christies Beach. While chatting to customers Helen realised that some women in the community were also affected by the same violence she had experienced. After speaking with her husband, she converted a back room of the shop to a safe place where women could seek shelter.
“You’d see women late at night going down to the beach with their children in their pyjamas so they wouldn’t be home when their hubby got in after having a drink,” says Helen. “Opening the shop was about creating a safe space for women and children.”
Helen’s idea grew and in 1977 the first women’s shelter in Christies Beach was opened. Since then Helen has continued to be a strong voice against domestic violence and for gender equality.
In 2016 Helen started the Spirit of Woman not-for-profit organisation, which is supported by her daughter Heather, with the aim of creating a public national commemorative art space to bring family violence out into the open and give victims a place where their suffering is publicly acknowledged.
In 2020, Helen was bestowed an Order of Australia Medal for her life-long work for supporting women in need.
But life can’t be all work, so when Helen’s daughter Heather saw that ECH needed a star for the commercial, she told her mum who auditioned and got the part.
“I love doing things that are fun and creative,” she said. “I really enjoyed filming that ad, it was one of the highlights in my life.”
Helen also supports the commercial’s message of staying in control until the end. When she was a child in Ireland her mother used her to help to lay out the dead, so Helen is no stranger to death and grief.
“Death is just part of life,” she says. “It will happen to all of us, so I’m also preparing for my death now so when the time comes I’m ready and in control.”
In the meantime, Helen still has plenty of work to do seeking support for the Spirit of Woman and ensuring that the next generation continues her fight.