The ‘Echuca sister girl’ passing her culture between generations

“Watching the kids coming through the ranks has to be one of my favourite aspects of having been involved. I see kids that I knew as babies who are now having babies of their own, still surrounded by sport and ambition.”

If you say the name Lee Wanganeen around the Echuca area, chances are everyone and anyone will know exactly who you’re talking about… Auntie Lee. A self-proclaimed ‘born and bred Echuca sister girl’, Auntie Lee’s passion for netball spans three generations of the Wanganeen family, including four adult children of her own and nine grand children.

“After being a marching girl for 12 years, I got older and had a hunger to come back to [play] netball after starting my family,” Lee explained. “As I got older I’d play [on] Tuesday nights in a local comp with Echuca District Netball Association, and we’d have a couple of old girls and young ones.”

The social club started as a way for parents like Lee to have a sporting outlet across seasons, going from indoor cricket to basketball and netball. However as the years went by, Lee steered the social club in a new direction.

“Whatever sports the kids were interested in, we tended to help them out. We wanted a way for many of our young children in the community to be in a team [where they learned] about team culture as well as Indigenous culture.”

Lee has had a significant positive impact in the Indigenous community, playing with and coaching the Warma Turtles for many years. Working with the Njernda Aboriginal Cooperation, Auntie Lee’s involvement with the VACSAL carnival has been a defining factor of her work in Echuca, taking on leadership roles on carnival day such as announcer for the netball.

“It was just to send our young girls out there to have a go at netball at first,” Lee says. “I just wanted them to be the proud little Warma Turtles that they were, and still are. For our community, it turned into so much more over the years.”

VACSAL (Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association Ltd) aims to empower the Victorian Aboriginal community to achieve social, political and economic equity, whilst maintaining and strengthening identity, culture, pride and social purpose.

“Simply put, we invite communities around Victoria to put in a football and netball team from an area to represent our mob. It’s a really big gathering of all of us from Victoria,

“There’s no sad or sorry business, it’s a happy time to catch up with all the cousins you haven’t seen in a while, an opportunity for us to showcase our talents in sport, and everyone looks forward to this celebration of identity.”

On top of all the work within Echuca, Auntie Lee still found time to further her involvement with netball at a national level. Lee took her knowledge to national VACSAL carnivals, was appointed as the senior coach with the Victorian Aboriginal netball team, and the flew across Australia to coach her daughter’s U/17 side at the Charles Perkins National Football Championship Carnival in Alice Springs.

It was here in Alice Springs where the cherry was set to fall on top of Lee’s sporting career.

“While coaching in Alice Springs I met my husband’s cousin who was the National Coach of the Charles Perkins Carnival. I distinctly remember I said to my hubby, ‘I want to get that one day, I am going to work my butt off to get that role.’

“By some luck or miracle, not too long after I got it. I was appointed the Head National Coaching position in Canberra. That was just the absolute highlight of my little career. I’m just a country netballer. The coaching job in Canberra secured my passion to pass on my love of netball to the next generations.”

With three generations of goalers in her family, another career highlight was made possible when Auntie Lee recieved Caitlin Thwaites’ 2019 Indigenous Round Dress.

“Caitlin Thwaites is unbelievable, and the Vixens are too. Her dress from the Indigenous round highlights the importance of the round in itself. It really goes to showcase the talented sporting people out there and is an opportunity for our young and old Indigenous netballers to see there is a next level to make…the best level. It shows they can achieve the best.”

One legacy Auntie Lee will be remembered for will remain in the form of a goaling award for athletes in Echuca and at VACSAL carnivals.

“To see these little girls faces when they receive Auntie Lee’s award is pure joy for me. It gives them incentive and a sense to be proud and strong of who they are.

“The late sister girl Kerri Johnson was the big inspiration of my life in sport. She passed away several years ago now, but it was always her who taught me if you’re going to make change in the netball community then make sure you feel like a team, look like a team, and are an all-round team.

“If anything, I hope my actions pay respect to her. I think I’ve done my part to continue her legacy and it’s a fulfilling reward to see these girls flourish and that I’m doing something good for my mob out there.

“At the end of the day, my ultimate reward is watching kids smile and going on the court to play netball. You can’t get anything better than that.”