Careers inspired by a childhood love of nature

Author: Careers at Council

Read time: 5 min read

Introducing Justine Vella, Bushland Management Coordinator, and Jess Whittick, Bushcare Program Officer, at Penrith City Council

Both Justine Vella and Jess Whittick’s passion for native flora and fauna began in childhood. Justine started volunteering with Mulgoa Valley Landcare Group when she was just 10 years old. After graduating Year 12 at a local Penrith high school, Justine immediately began her traineeship with bush regeneration contractor The Bush Doctor, where she completed her Cert. II and IV in Conservation and Land Management.

Justine comments, “I finished my last HSC exam on the Thursday, and the following Tuesday I began my traineeship with The Bush Doctor. I ended up working there for 12 years before leaving to become the Bush Regeneration Team Leader at Blue Mountains City Council.”

When the role of Bushland Management Coordinator came up at Penrith City Council, Justine knew she had to apply. She explains, “It was my dream job. I had to go for it! And four years later, it’s everything I expected and I’m absolutely loving it.”

Similarly, Jess Whittick’s love for bushland began at a young age. Jess explains, “I also grew up locally. My father is a scientist, so I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors doing things like collecting soil samples and measuring trees. I developed a real affinity with nature.”

After high school, Jess attended Western Sydney University where she completed a Diploma in Science before continuing on to do a Bachelor in Environmental Science. Jess also spent time in the private sector before joining local government, where she worked initially with the City of Canterbury Bankstown and then at Lane Cove Council for over nine years in the Bushland team.

Like Justine, Jess welcomed the opportunity to join Penrith City Council 15 months ago. She comments, “I knew I wanted to stay in local government, and I live locally, so when this opportunity came up, I jumped at it.”


As Bushland Management Coordinator, Justine coordinates the Council’s Bushland Management Program, including; weed control, tree planting, and flora and fauna monitoring. She also applies for external grant funding opportunities and liaises with external contractors, community groups and other stakeholders.

Justine has recently been appointed REF (Review of Environmental Factors) Officer for Penrith Council.  She explains, “As REF Officer, I undertake Part 5 assessments for multiple departments in Council. A lot of our roadside vegetation is protected in Penrith, so before any works are undertaken, I am tasked with doing the review of environmental factors that we need to be aware of.”

Jess’s role as Bushcare Program Officer focusses on volunteer engagement in restoring the local bushland. From designing and managing community events to running educational campaigns, Jess aims to increase community engagement and inspire more and more people to join the already active volunteer groups who attend the regular bushcare sessions.

Justine comments, “Since Jess has been in this new role, we’ve been able to explore different avenues to engage people. Jess has created a lot more diversity in our volunteering opportunities, different events for difference species and focussing on different sites. Today, our program is so much more than our 12 monthly bushcare sessions. Now, we get people traveling for over an hour to attend one of our events. They tell us what we’re doing really stands out!”


When COVID-19 forced the City into lockdown, Justine and Jess had to re-think how they were engaging with the community – resulting in a lock down-inspired pivot project which has been entered into Local Government NSW’s RH Dougherty Award 2022, Innovation in Special Events.

‘What’s in My Backyard?’ is a series of four educational and interactive webinars hosted on Zoom, aiming to inspire residents to discover some of the amazing animals living in their backyards.

The webinars covered the following topics:

  • Minibeasts in your backyard
  • Noises in the night
  • Create a frog-friendly backyard
  • How to make an insect hotel

Jess explains, “We were used to holding a minimum of 12 face-to-face sessions per month. When lockdown hit, all of that had to stop, but we wanted to create something to encourage people to get out into nature.” She adds, “Creating the webinar series was lots of fun. I’d never done anything like it before, so it was great to learn all of the behind-the-scenes elements – from the technical side to organising the design for the promotional social tiles on Facebook and Instagram.”

Justine comments, “What really stands out for me about this project was the different audiences we were able to reach and gain. Yes, we had some that were regular attendees to our volunteering sessions, but there were people who joined that had never attended anything, so we captured a totally new part of the community.”


From ‘Breakfast with the Birds’, a guided walk recording the species seen and heard, to a ‘Nocturnal Safari’, a night-time event discovering what species call a particular reserve home, Penrith Council’s Bushcare Program is built around creativity and education. And, most importantly, it’s resonating with the community.

The annual tree planting day on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is a great example of this. Each year ‘Trees for Mum’ and ‘Trees for Dad’ offer the community an opportunity to come together with their families and celebrate a loved one by planting a tree.

Not only do the events achieve significant biodiversity outcomes by planting native species in Penrith’s bushland, but they create a special and lasting legacy for families within the community.

Justine comments, “Families come and plant a tree to say thank you or as a remembrance. Jess has created these amazing tags that we can attach to the plant and the family can come back and visit that plant during the year.” She adds, “We get nearly 250 people coming through these events, and we’re touched by their stories – it’s actually really emotional for us.”

Despite an award-worthy project, and the development of an engaging bushcare program, Justine and Jess agree there’s no standing still.

Justine comments, “Our councillors and management here give us plenty of feedback on what we’re doing – the support comes all the way from the top. It pushes Jess and I to do even better next time. Even if the event has been a success, we’re always looking at ways we can build on it and push it to the next level.”

To find out more about Penrith Council’s Bushland Management and discover ways to get involved, including volunteering opportunities and events, visit here.

Are you ready to push your environmental career to the next level? Check out the opportunities on offer right now, here. 

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