14 May 2024

Meet the Region Illawarra team: Journalist Kellie O'Brien

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Kellie OBrien Region Illawarra

Region Illawarra journalist Kellie O’Brien with her book Shaking The Foundations. Photo: Supplied.

This week we’re introducing our Region Illawarra team – the people behind the stories. Today, meet journalist Kellie O’Brien.

For journalist Kellie O’Brien, the breadcrumbs of her life all point to storytelling – from singing an original Christmas song before 6000 people to writing a book about one of Tasmania’s most prominent businessmen.

Kellie returned to journalism through Region Illawarra a year ago this month, after 16 years as a journalist in Tasmania before starting a marketing business and moving to Shellharbour a decade ago with her two daughters and husband, who was then a newspaper editor.

It was Tasmania’s West Coast, where it “rains nine months of the year and drips off the trees the other three”, where she started her journalism career in newspapers.

In her first two years, she went from a weekly newspaper where she collated the pages by hand, to a regional daily where she was located two hours from head office and had to fax through her stories and pop the film from her camera onto a bus.

She said it was a long way from the instant nature of today’s digital photos and online news portals.

“During 16 years as a news and entertainment journalist in Tasmania, I always gravitated towards human interest stories and telling the story behind the story,” Kellie said.

“It wasn’t about a business opening or a band releasing a debut album, but why the people behind that business or album were led down that path in the first place.”

When she fell pregnant, she started writing a humorous column about her pregnancy and being a new mum.

“I talked about my weapons of mass lactation and how I’d wake of a morning with what looked like two fried eggs on my PJ top,” she said, laughing.

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By the time she had her second child three years later, people were still asking her about that column, prompting her to start a mummy blog while on maternity leave – not really knowing what that was.

She said that blog was among Australia’s biggest mum blogs at the time, sparking her own marketing business and, in 2015, fulfilling her life dream to become an author, by writing the story of one of Tasmania’s most prominent businessmen and his wife.

“When they first came to me, they wanted a book that detailed the chronological order of their business, but the book changed significantly when we sat down in that first meeting,” she said.

Kellie said the book, Shaking The Foundations: The Fairbrother Story, shared how a humble young Tasmanian couple started a small construction business out of the back of a panel van at the same time they began growing their family in 1972.

“They always imagined their son would take over one day,” she said.

“However, when he developed schizophrenia at age 21, it shook their foundations – hence the title – and made them question why they had spent two decades building a business that now had no foreseeable future.

“It was the defining moment for their business and one that would dramatically change the course of their business – for the better.”

Kellie said that ability to make readers feel something while telling a good story was what she was enjoying most about her return to journalism.

However, she said picking a favourite Region Illawarra story was like picking your favourite child.

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“In the past week alone, I’ve interviewed the inspiring Mark Pearson who is pushing past his Asperger’s syndrome to trek the Kokoda Track and Lauren Russell who got to walk the Mother’s Day Classic with her daughter after making the decision in the overwhelm of facing breast cancer treatment to freeze her embryos,” she said.

“Then there’s Ben Oakley, who has battled for years with a debilitating illness and is now awaiting a first-of-its-kind surgery in Australia for a rare brain cancer.

“And that’s just one week.

“The Illawarra has some of the most inspiring people – and I know there’s a lot more to share yet.”

She said what kept her in the region was the spectacular scenery, from the mountains to the beach.

“Despite my aversion to sand – it’s like glitter, it gets everywhere – I’ve got a soft spot for the Illawarra’s beaches,” she said.

“There’s something about the ocean breeze and crashing waves with the mountains as a backdrop that whispers ‘home’ to me.”

When she’s not tapping away at her keyboard or doling out marketing advice to businesses, she morphs into a full-fledged “nanna”.

“Think veggie garden tending, knitting marathons, singing to musicals, and genealogy research,” she said.

“I’ve even discovered a Tasmanian-born family member George Morehead Aitken from the 1800s who moved to Shellharbour and worked in the Shellharbour post office, stealing a cheque from a customer and being sentenced to three years’ hard labour.

“It’s a wonder I was ever allowed into Shellharbour.”

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