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  • Garion Thain

Legends of the Nepean: Gweneth McMaster-Fay

I FIRST CONTACTED Gweneth McMaster-Fay just this week to let her know she’d been nominated as a Legend by Councillor Greg Davies for her local philanthropy and a longstanding community mindset. After finding out she helped found the Nepean Medical Research Foundation, my interest was fully piqued.

I knew there would be a story there, but very quickly my lunch with Ms McMaster-Fay showcased that there was in fact a 15 year's of stories, like the parable of the mustard seed, saw a small foundation grow in stature and take a monumental journey of growth, one that was entirely Nepean focused.

Gweneth McMaster-Fay has lived in the Nepean Region for decades, raised a family here and loves Penrith and what it is today in a profound fashion, now working as a marriage celebrant and in the office of federal member for Lindsay. Here is some of the story of her involvement with the Nepean Medical Research Foundation, the University of Sydney and her Penrith ‘Phils.’

Gweneth McMaster-Fay was a primary educator for twenty years before becoming the practice manager for her husband’s three medical practices. In 2000, she became a founding member of the Nepean Medical Research Foundation, at Nepean Hospital, which had recently become a teaching hospital for the University of Sydney – the only one in the area that didn’t have a research foundation at the time.

Motivated in part by her own son having diabetes, Ms McMaster-Fay was spurred on by friends including Professor Sirus Niraqi to grow the foundation and the board, recalling that in the beginning the foundation operated out of a tin shed, which has since become a new wing.

“We were throwing rocks at the windows to get each other’s attention,” laughed Ms McMaster-Fay.

“I wanted to contribute, meaningfully.”

“I’d say, and this is one of my favourites – ‘I’m happy to do anything for you, but I don’t want to sell Lamingtons.”

She even held board meetings from her own home in the early days.

All the money the foundation ever made would stay at the hospital, despite the University of Sydney’s involvement. It was very community based, even before the dawn of the Nepean Philanthropists.

“The way I would pitch it to the community [and later the Nepean philanthropists] was, ‘Any money you give, stays in the Nepean,’” Ms McMaster-Fay said.

Throughout the entire conversation about the foundation, she was sure to remind me of how much she valued her fellow board members, noting they came from a variety of backgrounds and had networking capabilities which helped the foundation grow in meaningful ways, including the likes of John Bateman and Jim Aitken.

In 2006, the foundation grew in a big way following an initiative by John Bateman, who suggested that the foundation target 50 and over business people in the Nepean, and instead of asking for sporadic donations, convince them of the foundation’s good work in the realm of community-based medical research and ask them for commitments of $2,500 a year for five years.

This initiative saw Ms McMaster-Fay’s favourite story, wherein at the function at Penrith Panthers which resulted in over 40 commitments from the ‘Phils’ as they’d go on to be affectionately known, Professor Richmond Jeremy, who was also there celebrating the 150th anniversary of the University of Sydney, pledged to match the Phils dollar for dollar.

The backing of the Phils and the University, as well as a talented and committed board, helped Ms McMaster-Fay validate the legitimacy and sincerity of the foundation.

The firm support of local patrons, including Cr Greg Davies, as well as the patronage of the former governor of NSW, Dame Marie Bashir, Ms McMaster-Fay’s inspiration and now good friend, went even further to contribute to the foundation’s pedigree. She also mentioned the consistent support of service clubs and the Rotary clubs of the region.

Every year the foundation would hand out seeding grants. One grant that Ms McMaster-Fay is very proud of was a $14,000 grant to Gustavo Duque, who turned that $14,000 into $1,000,000 and started the falls and fractures clinic at Nepean Hospital.

“It means a lot to know the foundation contributed to others’ success, and helped people,” she said.

After 15 years the story ends however. This is because “the foundation no longer exists as it was,” Ms McMaster-Fay said.

The University of Sydney restructured the foundation and McMaster-Fay resigned out of protest. The board soon followed her.

“The saddest part was that the University lost its grasp of the community aspect,” she said. “It was working so well, I don’t think they understood that Penrith is such a special place.”

In a letter to Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, Ms McMaster-Fay regretfully said that it was too late to resurrect what the foundation had with the board gone, but expressed how proud she was to have spent 15 years of her life involved there. The weight of her sadness was tangible.

Ms McMaster-Fay still says her dream is to get Nepean Hospital an institute.

Meeting Gweneth McMaster-Fay was an experience in edification. I always enjoy listening to and sharing stories about the Nepean Region that some of us might not know, like in this case which I didn’t even know the half-of before our meeting. Ms McMaster-Fay is an intelligent, interesting philanthropist and her community minded nature still lives in her type of work today.

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