Penny Rohleder: Hero of the Year, 2021

Penny Rohleder: Hero of the Year, 2021 Kirsten Cunningham Photography

Penny Rohleder is a professional photographer, a physiotherapy student, and a mother of three from Blayney who volunteers with Heartfelt, an organisation that gives the families of stillborn or terminally ill babies the gift of photographic memories. Winner of the 2021 Hero of the Year Central West Mummy Award, we took the opportunity to ask Penny a few questions.

Can you tell me how you started your volunteer work with Heartfelt?

I started in 2014, and that’s when I moved the Central West. I guess the reasons were because of personal experience; my mum had a stillborn baby, and I’d been through personal loss as well. I’d also seen a newspaper article about a family in Sydney or Melbourne who’d had photos done after having a stillborn baby, and I just felt this overwhelming sense of, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe anyone would have to go through that.” I hadn’t been a photographer for long at that point, but I thought, “You know what, I’ll apply as a volunteer photographer with Heartfelt and I’ll see if there’s a need for that service in Orange and Bathurst”. Sadly, it turns out there is a big need, and I do anywhere between 10 and 30 of these Heartfelt photo sessions between Orange and Bathurst each year. It’s not something that’s talked about often though, it’s almost like a hidden statistic, and that’s a bit sad. 

How do people usually get in touch with you for these sessions?

Usually the hospital will call me directly, they’ve made it part of their plan now when people have a stillborn baby; Heartfelt is one of the services they’ll encourage families to access. Otherwise, the families will directly call Heartfelt, and Heartfelt will get in touch with me. And then I organise to go up to the hospital and take the photos. 

Are you the only person in the Orange and Bathurst area who does this volunteer work with Heartfelt?

There used to be another photographer, but the thing that happens with Heartfelt photographers is that they usually sign up for Heartfelt and think, “Oh yep, this is something I can do,” but then they do a few sessions or they’ll have a bad experience with a session, because they can be quite difficult – we do ‘withdrawal of care’ sessions as well, that’s when babies are taken off life support. So when things like that happen, a lot of photographers retire from Heartfelt duties. At the moment it’s just myself. 

What makes you keep going with such a difficult job?

It’s something I wish I never had to do, but I do feel a sense of – I wouldn’t even call it pride – but I just feel happy that I can help somebody have something for their child, when they otherwise would have nothing. 

The last question I have is on a lighter note: what do you like most about living in the Central West?

I love the distinct four seasons that we get out this way, and people are so welcoming, unlike the city. We have everything available to us, the food and wine! I just love that my kids can grow up in a beautiful place with amazing people.

Denise Mills

Denise Mills is a writer and accountant based in Central West NSW. Her words have featured in The Guardian, Brevity, Epoch and more.

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