Despi O’Connor moved to the Mornington Peninsula in November 2006, primarily because of her husband who works for Monash University. It was his transfer from the Gippsland campus that inspired the family of four to move closer to the coast.

How did you manage the transition to the Mornington Peninsula?

It was very smooth actually, because I had a plan based on my previous life experiences. My husband and I moved to Warragul when we were newlyweds with no family and no friends, and we had our first child not long after arriving. I suffered from post-natal depression which was in part brought on by loneliness. I knew that I had to get myself out of the sense of isolation I was feeling, so I joined the local mother’s group. I found so much relief being part of this group of women, some of whom I am still in touch with.

As a result of joining this group I ended up helping out with the toy library, became President of the kindergarten committee, and worked part time with the local council and Monash University. And I was also doing a master’s degree in education at the time. It was this experience that guided me and made me understand how important it would be to get to know people when we made the move to the Mornington Peninsula.  

Have you always enjoy being involved with community groups?

I was always community-minded and enjoyed a sense of leadership from a young age. In both primary school and secondary school I was the school captain and prefect. I had a really close friend, but I could also get along with, and feel comfortable with, a wide variety of people. Being able to get on with everyone and be inclusive came naturally to me. It’s important to me to foster positive relationships. Perhaps it was my mother’s influence. When I was growing up she was always a volunteer on the school council and was active in parent groups, and she was often at school with us taking an active role in our lives.

Did sport play a big part in your school life?

I have always been involved in sport to some degree. When my father was young he was a highly regarded footballer in West Gippsland and my mum loved all sports. She was our basketball coach and our team manager – whilst she had four children herself she always gave of herself so openly to all of my friends and teammates as well. Through their generosity of spirit, both my mum and dad opened up opportunities for us – and for other children in the community as well. As a result, as adults all of my siblings have become super active in their local communities.

It’s interesting, my parents came from a farming background and we were never beachgoers, but from a young age I had always wanted to be a Nipper. One of my high school friends was a Nipper at Wye River and I was fascinated by it. I was a strong swimmer and played water polo, and I was also involved in aquatic education, AustSwim and the Play It Safe campaign. So within a month of moving to the Mornington Peninsula I had joined the local life-saving club along with my husband who also became very active in the local community.

When my daughter was in grade one she really wanted to play basketball, but they didn’t have a team in Warragul. So when we moved here I also got involved in the Mornington District Basketball Association. However I couldn’t just enrol my daughter in a team, I had to bring a whole team with me! I didn’t know anyone here, so what to do? I started Mt Martha Basketball Club. I see now that it’s because my Mum had always done things like that. She never made it look hard or arduous or too much trouble, and in turn I didn’t find it too much trouble to take on these big jobs even though they were very time consuming.

In 2013 one of my friends in the Mt Martha Basketball Club’s women’s team was diagnosed with breast cancer, so we decided to do what is now known as the Carmen’s Classic which is a fundraiser. The whole team ran in her honour – and at the end of that run one of my teammates convinced me to help her get fit and motivate her to do more running. Before long we were running three days a week and I was loving it. By October of the following year I had run my first marathon.

It is so inspiring to show how you can become an integral part of a community through having an open heart and an open mind? Why did you decide to join the local Council and run for Mayor?

Well running for Mayor was not on my radar at all. In mid-2020 we had a bit of a situation with kids in my local area who had started to construct their own bike path in our reserve area (which is remnant bushland that had never been cleared). Of course the kids didn’t know that, and I am a huge advocate for encouraging kids to get on their bikes, but it was one of those moments of inner conflict. I wanted kids to enjoy their bikes, but I also didn’t want them ripping up the last 10% of untouched bushland. It was a real quandary, and a challenge.

So I decided to pen a blog post about the remnant bushland, and why it’s so important and needs to be protected – which I backed up with facts about the local area. I posted it on Facebook and also made print outs for a letterbox drop. The response was really encouraging, and I got a lot of support for the balanced way I structured the argument, and a few friends suggested I put myself forward in the upcoming council elections.

I went to a VLGA meeting (Victorian Local Government Association) and I also attended a Zoom workshop for potential candidates. I had worked with local councils previously and understood how council regulations work. One of my fellow attendees convinced me to run as a Councillor in the elections, so we gathered a group of people together who were passionate about me being voted in, and with a very small budget I ended up being successful. Being elected as Councillor was very exciting, and very humbling, and then being voted in as Mayor in November last year was a very proud moment for my family who have been incredibly supportive.

How time consuming is this role for you?

Being a teacher, my workload last year was quite intense. But I have always been able to juggle my career with numerous extra-curricular sporting and community commitments. Somehow it always gets done. Sometimes I don’t do everything particularly well, but I accept that I am doing my best and whilst the result might not be perfect - I’m still getting things done.

Being Mayor can be a 10 hour a day job including some weekends, and some days can be 14 to 16 hours long if there are council meetings in the evening. So I decided to take this year off from teaching so I could focus on my role as Mayor. I wanted to be available when required rather than having other commitments that would take priority. I did ask my husband how I was going to fit everything in, and he said, “Don’t worry, you always make it work.”

For me, the Mornington Peninsula is such a magic place. I don’t know if it’s because of my running or my connections to the community, but I love it here. I love breathing it in.

Despi O’Connor is a champion for every facet of the local community, from indigenous affairs to sporting clubs to community organisations. She has a unique and inspiring capacity for bringing out the very best in those around her. Despi’s role as Mayor is a one-year term, however it does seem likely that Despi may well be the longest serving Mayor in the Mornington Peninsula’s history. If she decides to put her hand up again that is.

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