By Derek Schlennstedt
If there is one organisation that represents the resilience and community spirit synonymous with the Dandenong Ranges, it’s the Upwey-Belgrave RSL Sub-branch.
Earlier this year the community branch- affectionately known as the ‘heart of the hills’ – looked to be on the brink of collapse after falling victim to substantial thefts.
Though their survival and capacity to flourish in the face of overwhelming odds is why Upwey-Belgrave RSL and all their supporters have been named in the Mail’s 2017 Issue of the Year.
Faced with the dire reality of closure, the Mail reported in January 2017 on the plight of the Upwey-Belgrave RSL, when it was found that Marion Mills, a previous Treasurer at the RSL had stolen a substantial amount of money from the organisation.
Over an almost three-year period – from 26 November 2010 to 5 August 2013 – Mills made 80 fraudulent payments totalling $28,918.
Though a News Corp report suggested the RSL was left in the red to a figure of around $400,000 after Mills failed to pay bills or staff superannuation.
With thousands of dollars lost, the Mail reported in April that the RSL Sub-branch had made an announcement confirming that they would continue on until at least the end of 2017, though their future looked dubious.
Instead of giving up and shutting the doors or succumbing to the appeal of poker machines, members of the committee of management called on the community to join their fight for survival.
And join the fight they did, with RSL member Annie Ashton, acknowledging the immense support of the surrounding community who rallied to retain what patrons acknowledge as the ‘heart of the hills’.
Spurred on also by a rejuvenated bistro – as well as assistance from local politicians and the Healesville RSL Sub-branch – the Dandenong Ranges community threw its weight behind the popular icon.
On Sunday 6 August when the Sub-branch held a special event that called on the community for support the Mail spoke to RSL member Annie Ashton who said visitors turned out in record numbers with many signing up for membership on the day.
“This is not your average RSL; it’s also a community and social hub,” Ms Ashton said.
“There’s a sign near the door which reads, ‘You enter a stranger but once’, and it’s true.
“The patrons know the staff by name, and often vice-versa, and being a member here is like belonging to a big extended family.”
On April 24, 2017 The Mail reported that Marion Mills pleaded guilty to obtaining financial advantage by deception and was sentenced to four months in jail, wholly suspended for two years – Mills was also ordered to pay back the stolen funds back at $50 per week
Despite its hardships over the past year and a difficult start to the year, the RSL remains an enduring part of the Dandenong Ranges, much thanks to its support from the community surrounding the Dandenong ranges.
Every year its importance in the Dandenong Ranges as a welcoming hub for residents and returned servicemen alike is shown by the thousands who turn out to its Anzac Day service. Those thousands also rallied in support of the RSL and were crucial in ensuring that it remains an enduring presence in the Dandenong Ranges.
Though President David Eaton said the RSL is not out of the woods yet the fight is far from over and he said they would continue to fight to ensure the RSL remains a pokie-free branch and ensure that it retains that welcoming atmosphere which has earned the RSL its place as ‘the heart of the hills”.