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Why the wellbeing of women is non-negotiable

Why the wellbeing of women is non-negotiable

20 June 2019

A record number of women recipients were amongst not-for-profit leaders recognised on the Queen's Birthday Honours List, including Company Secretary Carolyn Clark, who has been our Board member since 2009. Carolyn received an Order of Australia (OAM) for services to Women in the Community which she has been supporting since 2004 when she joined the Mission's Women4Women Committee. Since 2007, she has been the chairperson of the committee, which is dedicated to providing financially support to the Women's House. In her own words, she reflects on her fondest memories at Sacred Heart Mission, explains the crucial relationship between service providers and the local community, and why she believes the wellbeing of women is non-negotiable. 

It is difficult to describe what I do at the Women’s House. I have volunteered there for more than 15 years and during this period I have been involved in many different services and fundraising activities. I have met extraordinary people. I have inspired and I have been inspired. It is both uplifting and soul destroying. But I am in it for the long haul. So much is done from the heart.

The Women’s House is a village populated by all ages from 0 to 90. When I first arrived it was predominantly used by street workers. However over the last 15 years, a rollercoaster of economic crises, natural disasters and various Government initiatives has meant that we now see many more women from many different walks of life.

The Women’s House is a safe and supportive open house where women are provided with a meal and warm welcome. Through this experience, the client develops trust and builds a connection with the Mission. Once women are ready, they are linked to more formal support to make changes in their lives, whether it be support to find housing, to address mental and physical health concerns, to manage substance use issues, to address family violence, to address legal and financial matters or to develop social and life skills. The Women’s House is sustained by its strong connection with the community, through volunteering and fundraising.

Every month, over 600 of these women walk through our doors to find food, shelter, clothing, counseling, medical and legal assistance and employment. The lives that I have encountered and the experiences that I have had are sometimes impossible to put into words.

On my first day as a volunteer the pantry was bare. Apart from a few cans of tomatoes and some pasta. Luckily I had once had a catering business so I somehow managed to whip up a feast for up to 50 on meagre rations. Before long we were bringing in food each week and teaching women about nutrition. Food donations from friends started pouring in. Today, the Mission has grown and there is a regular supply of food for us to use. But those early days were always an adventure.

Day one was a baptism of fire in many ways. I was among the first group of volunteers that were allowed into the Women’s House. It could be unpredictable at times. I remember being confronted by a woman in despair over her missing children. There are never enough words of comfort. And my negotiation skills as a lawyer came in handy as well.

It became very clear that the women we met were starved of kindness and non-abusive physical contact. In my first year at the Women’s House I organised a series of photographic portrait sessions with my girlfriend who volunteered with me there. We washed hair, we applied makeup, we did nails and we were the loving and caring girlfriends that some of the women had never had. We asked a friend of mine, a professional photographer, to take beautiful black and white portraits of the women. The portraits were gifts for the women and for the children that they had often given up. It was humbling. The raw emotion of this experience still makes me shiver. I felt very blessed. We repeated this over a few years. It was a beautiful and therapeutic experience for clients and for us. One session was held in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. Women brought their children. We took old fashioned Kodak style photos. It was magical.

The experiences and situations encountered are too numerous to tell. Sometimes the solution is clear. And where there is a gap or a problem, I’ll work hard to fix it. As time went on and the pantry began to fill with food we needed tupperware to keep it fresh. So I had a tupperware party and organised dozens of women to purchase food and storage containers. We still use them and these women still support the Women’s House. The same thing applied to tampons and sanitary pads. Again, I found a local organic tampon manufacturer and convinced her to support the Women’s House.

Similar stories apply to the supply of baby formula and underwear. I was appalled at the cost of a woman’s most essential items. Our clients could not afford the basic necessities, so a pathway to donated goods was found. Luckily I am never too embarrassed to ask. One year it was prams and baby essentials. We received hundreds. It was overwhelming. Another time it was for Christmas gifts for children. The same result. There is so much public support. All it takes is someone to harness it and to gather together a group of beautiful friends to join in and champion other women. When the community rallies behind service delivery providers, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Over the years, you could find me singing karaoke with a wooden spoon, making a three- course lunch for 50, whipping up a birthday cake, comforting a crying baby or a crying mother, planting flowers, holding hands, listening to dreams, joining in art therapy (not very well), massaging tired shoulders or just being that sister, daughter or friend that someone needed. I share my birthday with a Women’s House client who lives in our aged care facility. Each year I try to celebrate with her. She always introduces me to the other residents as her friend. I can’t explain how special this is for me on my birthday.

For years I was Santa at the Christmas party. This was fun but also really hard. Over 100 women and their children turn up to celebrate. As Santa I was privy to many wishes and many tears. Christmas is so hard for some of our clients. But I love Christmas so I was determined that the women who were our family at the Women’s House had a day to celebrate and feel special. For many years we sourced gifts, there was a feast, we slaved over the BBQ for hours. Last year we had a Christmas picnic in the Botanical Gardens. It was a sweltering day. It always is. I am so proud to see that the passion that I brought to this has been adopted by others and that the tradition will live on.

In the early years I would join the social workers on nighttime outreach. We would walk the streets of St Kilda with bum bags full of miscellaneous items. I felt instant camaraderie among the girls on the street. But I felt so ashamed at the same time. I had a home to go to at the end of the night. But they did not.

Sometimes my friends ask me how I do this year after year. How can I not? It has been an extraordinary journey for me. I am incredibly lucky to have been able to play my part, to witness what the Women’s House can achieve with a community of women behind it. 

With the lows come the highs as well. We have raised many babies. It is one of my favourite things. It takes a village to raise a child in this demographic. I have been blessed to support women from pregnancy through to birth and then to see the miracles that they produce. The heartache comes later when the babies are often handed on to the Department of Human Services. What do you say to a mother who loses her child in this way? She is a mother like us. Again, the practical hat comes on and with emotional care comes practical ideas and solutions around supervised visits and a vision for the future.

But with everything in life we needed money. And so I gathered a group of friends around me and started the Light Up a Life cocktail party. It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago we organised our first fundraiser around my kitchen table. The aim back then was to raise awareness. I had only been volunteering at the Women’s House for a short time but I was so moved by what I saw that I felt compelled to do something. For me, the party was an opportunity to share with others and to open my friends’ eyes too. It still is. We have raised a lot of money and made a lot of friends. Our supporter network went from zero to hundreds. It has been incredible. And no matter how many times I speak about the Women’s House at these and other events I am still completely stunned by the support that this engenders in others.

It is really important to me that the traditions that have been born from my heart continue. Succession is essential and as time goes on I have been very mindful of involving as many friends as I can. I speak at schools, functions and in Boardrooms. Somehow we have convinced a group of younger women to start an offshoot of our fundraising committee and last year they held their first event.

When I first went to the Women’s House, no one had heard of it. No one understood that a stone's throw away from their home there were women living on the street. But now they do. For any service delivery provider like the Women’s House, partnering with the local community is key to its success. Together, we get the job done.

A few years ago I was at the Mission’s Easter service. For some reason I was standing at the front of the Church when suddenly the doors burst open, there was a flood of light and a little boy came running down the aisle and threw himself around my legs. When I looked up at the door I could see a woman literally bathed in golden light. It was his mother, a woman we had supported when she gave up drugs because she was pregnant and then through her pregnancy and after to enable her to leave behind her life working on the street and to forge a new life for herself and her child. We had photographed this woman and her baby boy many years previously. And that little boy, when I looked down at him I just knew that every minute that I had spent at the Women’s House, working at night on outreach, making cups of tea, dressing up as Santa, singing karaoke…every minute was encapsulated in that child and that every minute was worth it.

Find out more information about the Women's House. 

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Sacred Heart Mission respectfully acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate our services. We pay our respects to the ongoing living cultures of Aboriginal peoples, and to Elders past, present and future.
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