Our COVID Heroes Starting October 2020, over the next couple of months we will be sharing the stories of our amazing neighbourhood house leaders to acknowledge their significant contribution to the COVID-19 relief effort. Neighbourhood houses have been classified as an "essential service" since March and have been at the forefront of community support and relief throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, they have risen to the challenge of supporting and engaging with their communities to ensure no Victorian gets left behind. New stories will continue to be added to this page as they roll out on our social media channels. Heather Stevenson St Arnaud Neighbourhood House “We’ve been working with residential aged care facility Coates Hostel for many months during 2020, undertaking a Life Story book project for several of their residents. The project aims to honour the life and valuable contributions of our elderly residents by providing them with a professionally printed hardcover book containing their biography and many photographs from throughout their life. We received State Government funding for this project which was initially designed around face-to-face interviews between the residents and young people, however, when COVID-19 restrictions were enacted, we had to be innovative to find solutions around these new challenges, in order to deliver the project. During lockdown, the project continued with the help of family members collecting information, and with the help of staff at Coates Hostel collecting and scanning photos. Where possible, interviews were conducted by e-mail and telephone. Whilst undertaking the project, one of the participants sadly passed away. However, with the help of his family members, his book was still able to be completed. We consider it a great privilege to have been able to get to know him through the great stories he shared, and to have created a book that will be treasured by his family and passed down to future generations who can learn about his life. The books will help keep our local history alive and evoke memories of times gone by and introduce the reality of historical life to the younger generations, hopefully providing them with a greater appreciation for the hardships and sacrifices endured. They also function as a memento or keepsake for the resident and their family. Coates Hostel have also told us that each week going forward, staff will read out a resident’s life story book as part of their reading group, for all to enjoy and share." Samantha Blackwell Yarrunga Community Centre "A lady, living alone with no mobile or internet, became extremely isolated and disengaged when she was no longer able to participate in her normal activities at the centre. During the first lockdown, I tried to encourage her to borrow a free tablet with data, so she could participate in her exercise classes virtually. She was adamant that it wasn’t for her and she was scared she might break it. Just before lockdown 2.0 I persisted yet again, assuring her I would support her every step of the way. She finally agreed. I worked with her, both on the phone and at her home on the doorstep, to get her online. The first class was not successful, but by the third she was a whiz. She is now so grateful and, in her words, ‘I am not afraid that I am going to break something anymore and I am so glad I get to see my friends each week’. She is 83 years young but so proud of her achievements… as am I." Helen Douglas and Kerry Parry Long Gully Neighbourhood Centre “When restrictions were introduced in March, we were keen to stay connected with our amazing community, so we came up with the idea of a 'New Beginnings' newsletter which would bring hope and encouragement during such a difficult time. A team of dedicated volunteers graphically design, staple and letterbox drop 200+ printed copies and the newsletter is also emailed out and available online. To date, we've published almost 30 issues, and it's been received so enthusiastically by local businesses, council, groups and community members who have enjoyed sharing stories, recipes, craft projects and games. Not everyone has easy access to online content which has reinforced the need to provide hard copy newsletters to some people. A lady in her 70s who lives alone and has been receiving groceries delivered for the duration of the pandemic, has appreciated receiving a hard copy of the newsletter in her letter box. She messaged us to say: 'Thanks for the newsletter, I love them. I absolutely adore the articles in the newsletter about neighbours. I get quite a laugh and I’m sure others do too.'” Heidi Butler-Moore Glen Park Community Centre “We have a community member who I'll refer to as 'LH' who been accessing our food pantry for some time. She has a pretty sad story and has experienced loss that most of us just couldn’t comprehend, and will hopefully never have to experience. LH only ever takes what she needs as she is very mindful that there are many more people relying on the same food. She constantly tells us how grateful she is and how much of a difference we make to her life and her grandchildren’s lives. I am most proud of the fact that we have been able to deliver emergency relief to so many people like LH. I’ve done the calculations and to date we’ve given out 317 individual bags of pantry staples and personal hygiene items, 919 dozen eggs, and 471 individual meals. On average, that's about 1,250 kgs of food per month – including fresh fruit, veg, bread, eggs etc. It means everything to me to be part of a sector that exists for the greater good and that my working life will have a huge positive impact on generations to come." Tennille Hall Pangerang Community House "We recruited 30 local sewers who made more than 130 sets of scrubs for our local hospital and health care workers in Wangaratta - this was supported by our local council who provided collection and drop off points for material and patterns throughout the municipality. Our healthcare workers were so grateful, but equally important, our local sewers were grateful. Grateful to be connecting with others, grateful to have a sense of purpose and an activity to keep their minds and bodies busy during isolation. Prior to the second lockdown, we started to make and sell masks for $10, a great initiative for our craft group with the hope of making enough money to purchase some new sewing machines. When compulsory mask wearing was introduced, our project went boom! The phones rang off the hook and the lines were long outside the front of the office as we were the only organisation already making them locally. In just a month we made around 1,700 masks, raising more than $13,000, and donated masks to those in need. The number of sewers we had working around the clock to keep up with the demand, was incredible. We were super proud to be mentioned in Federal Parliament for ‘rising to the challenge’ by our federal member for Indi, Dr. Helen Haines MP. ‘Pivot’ is the 2020 word of the year, but for neighbourhood houses, this is what we do – always. We pivot and adapt to our community needs daily. To be part of a sector that does this, without question and hesitation, is so unique. In a time when doors were shutting everywhere, we have been able to demonstrate a constant presence, with opportunities for isolated community members to connect.We don’t say, “sorry, we can’t help you at the moment” - we say “how can we help?” Jasdip Singh Rosanna Fire Station Community House "For some participants, our community house is like a second home. One person who I’ll name Jodie has been coming in three times a week over many years. When the pandemic hit, her living situation changed. She quickly started to feel isolated and depressed due to the lack of social interaction. She missed her friends. When we started Zoom online sessions, we worked with Jodie's residential community to ensure she was supported and able to attend the sessions. Now we see her happy, interacting with the tutor and working on her art work. We’ve hosted many online activities such as morning teas, watercolours, yoga sessions and our regular walking group. We have also been able to run online courses for people with disabilities like cooking, daily living skills, art and two music groups. Our childcare service has remained open and the open food pantry and library outside the front of our house is regularly replenished according to demand. I am proud that we’ve managed to keep our community socially connected over these past few months. We know how much it means to many in our community." Greg Ferrington Wyndham Park Community Centre "We recently received a referral from our local council for a mum and her two boys so I called the mum and asked if there was anything in particular that the boys liked. She said that they were big readers and loved the ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’ books. With that knowledge, my partner and I were able to include a few books of a similar ilk for the boys and a bar of luxury chocolate for the mum, just to let them know we were thinking of them. When our president delivered the groceries, he had a chat to the mum and found out she was a photographer. We are now organising to employ her to run online classes in the coming weeks at the centre. We are so proud of our ability as a team to respond to the needs of our community, particularly around their access to food. We make sure that every grocery box that goes out includes some small treats for the parents and children of the household, to brighten their day during these hard times." Kaitlan Hill Sale Neighbourhood House "Throughout COVID we have learnt how resilient our community is and its ability to adapt to change. After being forced to close our doors, we upskilled as many people as possible to connect them online and started a social group called ‘New Beginnings’. This group gives our community members the chance to stay connected and have safe conversations about what they’re going through. The group has been an important outlet for many, including this person who told us, "I’ve improved my social skills. Connecting to others has given me confidence and has helped me to learn new things. I feel happy talking to everyone, it gives me inspiration to hear their experiences in life." We're proud to be able to continue to deliver such a valuable initiative to our community. The pandemic has been particularly hard on our volunteers because being involved with the house is part of their daily routine. For some, their volunteer role is the one weekly activity they have to look forward to, so it was important to me that we kept them engaged during lockdown. I received this lovely feedback from one of our volunteers which makes me so proud to be part of a sector where people are always front of mind: "Kaitlan, our manager, ensured team meetings continued, asked for our input, and gave us ways to continue participating from home, working on future projects to be delivered at Sale Neighbourhood House. Kaitlan, you have kept us together as a volunteer team and given us a reason to keep going." Dalal Smiley Wellsprings for Women "Norma (not her real name) is an asylum seeker who has no income support at all. Her application for a protection visa has been rejected several times. She has a daughter in Iran who is ill with cancer and her daughter lost her financial support when her brother-in–law passed away due to COVID-19. Norma was very distressed as her daughter was left destitute and Norma had no money to help her out. Wellsprings staff and volunteers rallied together and raised over $3,500 for Norma to pay for her daughter’s treatment. We continue to support Norma by advocating on her behalf and providing her with occasional opportunities to earn an income. The pandemic has highlighted the digital gap between the haves and have nots. We moved quickly in seeking funding and donations of laptops and PCs, providing over 80 women with a laptop each, internet dongle and IT helpdesk. We held training on connecting via Zoom. This made a huge difference for the women to be able to continue their education and connect with their colleagues. Our Women’s Support Team has also continued to operate in assisting women impacted by family violence, homelessness and financial hardship. Communities from refugee backgrounds have endured worse circumstances prior to coming to Australia so were quick to pull their sleeves up and volunteer with food relief and material aid. Apart from attending to physical needs, the emotional support and kindness shared by everyone helped in making the lockdown more bearable. The role of neighbourhood houses continues to be under-recognised. We are not frontline health workers, yet the role of our sector is to assist the most vulnerable and isolated in our community. We make sure no one is left behind and that the voices of the most marginalised are heard and their struggles made visible." Renae Paul Iramoo Community Centre "As a community centre we had to boost mental health and wellbeing. Our community was craving interaction and positivity as there was so much negativity going around. To reduce the feeling of loneliness and isolation in our community, we quickly adapted to online platforms. We set up a YouTube account where we posted videos of our regular programs, shared tips and provided a variety of workshops. We currently have over 60 videos! We also offered weekly zoom sessions to provide an interactive experience, which our community was needing. It was challenging having to close our doors to the public because it goes against everything neighbourhood houses are about. This pandemic has highlighted that what we do matters. It confirms we provide a valuable service and that the benefits of bridging the gap reduces isolation and creates a sense of belonging. This in-turn improves mental health and well-being. We are really excited to reconnect in-person again with our community." Narelle Crosling Mornington Community House "While we are apart, we have come together! We formed a group called Pins n Needles which started as an opportunity to have an online social catch up and developed into a highly motivated knitting collective. They started making HUGMEzz because we know how much we have all been missing hugs. These cute little soft toys have been shared them with different community groups, playgroup families and the Mornington Community Support and Information Centre. The group has also made over 100 beanies and other knitted items, and has sewn bags to hold toiletries and towels for people experiencing homelessness to use a public shower facility. One group member was so grateful for the kindness and welcoming nature of the group, she tearfully disclosed that she hadn’t been able to motivate herself to get out of bed for two weeks. Being part of the group gave her something to get out of bed for and look forward to. She has started sewing again after many years and is enjoying working on projects to help others. There has certainly been a sense of vulnerability and concern during these uncertain times. There are few people unaffected during this global pandemic either emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually or financially. I genuinely feel it's time for introspection and gentleness, compassion and kindness, both for ourselves and others. Being able to support others when there are so many in our community feeling isolated and vulnerable, makes me feel grateful for the opportunity. Through vulnerability there is growth." Claire Rawlinson Kyneton Community House "Due to the success of our takeaway community lunches, we were able to offer employment to a longstanding volunteer who was finding it tricky to get by. It was really gratifying to offer this to someone who has been so faithful to us, and who is so highly valued amongst our community. Our reimagined community lunch service sells out weekly, with many ‘eat one treat one’ meals donated for people isolated and in need. We have also upskilled many displaced people to get online, while our childcare has offered priority placement to front-line workers and those doing it hardest in these strange times. Our staff and volunteers have held together brilliantly, achieving so much. My priority through all of this has been to focus on making the people of Kyneton feel safe and connected and to offer them security in any way we can. I am so honoured to be counted amongst the numerous amazing neighbourhood houses taking on such enormous challenges with good grace and efficiency." Jan Phillips Mooroopna Education & Activity Centre “We are working at the coalface of our communities and we see everything at a grassroots level such as the impacts on mental health, disability, loneliness and the disconnect this isolation can cause. We have the ability to help communities and individuals rebuild and make connections. We were quick to find ways to continue providing activities that were safe and viable. For example, Crafty Readers going online, walking group that socially distance, wear masks and only walk in twos, online yoga. We make regular contact with volunteers and community members and were providing food security in the early stages of restrictions. We’re also developing a MEAC Cookbook that will include a history of MEAC and the COVID-19 period. A lovely young person has been doing placement with us with a skill set that was appreciated and very much needed. Initially her self esteem was pretty low however through her involvement here at MEAC, she has developed and gained confidence and is now looking at furthering her education in health and community services at LaTrobe Uni. She is the first of her family to seek a University degree and credits MEAC for helping her believe in herself.” Meg Higgins Angliss Neighbourhood House "We quickly developed online and remote delivery of our educational training programs to keep our students learning throughout the pandemic. The lack of physical contact within the classroom, without the direct support and reliance on a tutor, has encouraged many students to take responsibility for their own learning. Students have demonstrated an increase in independence and problem-solving skills and the training has given them focus and structure during this time. Our students and participants have also developed an informal mentor/network system which supports more vulnerable community members, including translation support. This has been really gratifying to see. This pandemic has demonstrated that our sector is highly responsive to the needs of our communities. The way we respond to difficult situations - flexible, immediate and innovative - reflects the kind of people who are engaged in running neighbourhood houses. Our jobs are largely about honouring the social contract by ensuring people are treated with respect and are empowered as much as possible." Kylie Dowes Pyramid Hill Neighbourhood House “When the pandemic hit, we didn’t skip a beat. From the moment our doors closed to the public, focus was directed towards getting rapidly changing information out to our rural community. Our newspaper The Pyramid Press, which I believe is the only publication in the region that continues to print weekly throughout the pandemic, has been a vital source of information relating to the latest health guidelines, mental health, business grants, financial support and so much more. Essential organisations have been published as ‘lift-outs’ as well as takeaway and delivery menus to support our food businesses. I'm so proud that we have been able to play such an important role in keeping our community informed and connected. There is a real sense of pride in our community. When things get tough, you are not alone - you have your community. Kind of like one big extended family. As a person who derives purpose by finding creative solutions to make a difference, being part of this sector has given me an opportunity to feel useful and productive during such a turbulent year." Kate Bishop Swan Hill Neighbourhood House “During the pandemic communities living in border towns have been particularly vulnerable, so we’ve been busy helping people obtain NSW Border Passes for essential services. For many of us, jumping online and applying for this pass might seem relatively straight forward, but this is not the case for everyone. We know all too well that not everyone in our community has the skills, confidence, or resources to do things online. One couple we’ve been able to help out are Jack and Jill (not their real names!) who live in Wakool, New South Wales. Jack needs to travel to Swan Hill in Victoria regularly to have his dialysis treatment at Swan Hill District Health. They need to make the 174km round trip to receive treatment and would not be able to cross the border and back again without the appropriate Border Pass issued by NSW Services. Jill asked Swan Hill Neighbourhood House to help her navigate the system and obtain their passes which need to be regularly renewed. And we were very happy to help! Local government and local members now refer community members on to us for assistance with obtaining their passes. It just goes to show that when major changes effect everyday lives and people are rattled, they need a constant supportive service like their local neighbourhood house – one which they can reach out to and trust.” Meredith MacKenzie Belvedere Community Centre “As a small centre we have not been able to provide physical supports like food or essential supplies but we have been able to keep our community connected and put a smile on people’s faces. Our biggest achievement has been our washable face mask and crocheted ear mask buddy making drive. When I put out the call for volunteers to either donate material or help us sew, a local lady decided it was time to clean out her cupboards and donate her excess material. While we were very grateful for her donation, I mentioned we also needed people to sew. As a retired dressmaker, she was initially reluctant…. however, once she got started, that sure changed quickly! To date she has made over 400 masks for us and I received a lovely email from her saying: ‘Thank you so much, it has been a godsend for me during isolation. It has kept me channelled and I have treated it as a job. I am so glad I offered my time.’ So far our fabulous volunteers have made over 700 face masks and 200 ear mask buddies which we are giving out to vulnerable community members for free. Our community is resilient but their emotions have taken a battering. Our members have rallied around those suffering personal losses, making sure they are ok in times of need. Our welfare phone calls have meant a lot to people who are feeling lonely and just want someone to chat with. I feel the pandemic has brought our community closer and that our centre has touched more people than before COVID. Every little thing we do helps create sparks that strengthen our community.” Martyn Shaddick Castlemaine Community House “One family told us that the Mount Alexander Community Pantry has been a lifesaver for them. They've needed to self-isolate because an older family member has complex medical concerns, meaning trips to the supermarket pose a risk. Our deliveries of grocery packs and freshly prepared meals has reduced their stress levels enormously. They also love the regular chats with our friendly delivery volunteers, who always check in on the family's wellbeing. I’m so proud of the partnerships we have with 12 other organisations to deliver the Community Pantry. It provided over 3,000 meals and grocery packs through the first lock-down period. Being part of this sector during COVID-19 has demonstrated, yet again, how important neighbourhood houses are for the community. We are able to rapidly bring the community together and cut through red tape to respond to emerging and changing needs. This is a great strength of our sector!” Julie Hallifax Colac Neighbourhood House "We established a 1800 support line to help people get food, medical supplies, clothing, as well as information on test results, how to manage rules and regulations and how to access funds. So far we’ve received well over 2,400 calls which makes me incredibly proud. We're also making regular calls out to people who we know are vulnerable, just to check in and make sure they’re doing okay. Our premises have also been a COVID testing site with over 6,000 tests conducted at the house so far. I think this pandemic has made it really clear what an asset our neighbourhood house is to the Colac community. Knowing that neighbourhood houses are truly there for their communities in unprecedented times, offering immediate responses with flexibility, makes me feel proud to be part of such a wonderful sector.” Melanie Tighe Highett Neighbourhood Community House and Hampton Community Centre "Our team has been delivering meals and fresh veggies each week to public housing estate tenants and international students. We'd never done this before so when the restrictions came into effect, everyone jumped in and got on with it - that's just what neighbourhood houses do. In early May it was becoming apparent that one tenant was experiencing greater difficulty with day to day care. Gently, over a few weeks, she got to a point where she felt comfortable sharing her situation with us and agreed for our team to contact Council services. That resident is now receiving regular My Aged Care support. I can't help but think that had we not been regularly on site during this time, this woman would have slipped through the net. I am grateful to be part of this sector which has been instrumental in providing support to the community during the pandemic. It has allowed me to focus on possible solutions to meet the needs of my community. Having that strong sense of purpose has been incredibly important for my mental health and wellbeing during this time."