A new style of conference is being trialled at Elizabeth, South Australia, where car manufacturing is fast winding up. It places a great deal of emphasis on companionship.
Former Premier Tom Playford set up the satellite city of Elizabeth, in Adelaide’s outer-north, in 1955, while embarking on a bold new ‘social experiment’.
It soon attracted thousands of migrants who helped build up the state’s manufacturing base.
But nowadays unemployment in the area is the worst in South Australia, and when Holden closes its Elizabeth plant in October for good, thousands of the car maker’s workers, along with those working in associated industries, will be navigating the challenge of finding alternative work.
The first step for us is to serve as companions to people who need help, allowing us to listen to their stories with reverence and gratitude.
At the end of 2015, the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Elizabeth North Conference identi ed at least 40 families that had sought assistance more than six or seven times that year.
In anticipation of already stretched resources needing to go further, a new model of conference is being trialled by the Society in the area.
It involves new ways of recruiting volunteers, including the birth of a Community Response Team in September 2016.
The team is made up of eight volunteers, including school teachers and administrative staff, tertiary students and people working in the corporate sector.
By mid-March the team had interviewed 20 people with various needs, and devised a comprehensive model with two key objectives.
One of these is for those who were interviewed to achieve a sense of wellbeing, hopefulness and control over their lives.
‘The first step for us is to serve as companions to people who need help, allowing us to listen to their stories with reverence and gratitude,’ Mario Trinidad, the project’s team leader explains.
The second step of the project, which is being trialled over a year, is to gauge whether some problems can be resolved collectively.
‘The hope is that people will give each other mutual support, to deal with problems like social isolation.’
Some people have proven to be hard to reach. As Mario explains, people won’t always answer their phone if they don’t recognise the number.
‘They realise it could be debt collectors,’ he says.
To date, the team had noted material needs like food, clothing and shelter were only the tip of the iceberg. ‘Beneath that is intergenerational poverty and ongoing indebtedness, intergenerational family violence, family breakdown, social isolation, ill-health and disability, mental health issues, racism and alienation from country’, Mario adds.
But resilience and persistence, dreams of a better future, a sense of humour and friendship were also prevalent.
‘More importantly perhaps, we are rediscovering what Frederic Ozanam and his friends experienced during their home visits—that the Vincentian relationship does not humiliate people.
‘Help is only humiliating when there is no reciprocity, when you give to the poor person nothing but bread, or clothes, or a bundle of straw, and there is no likelihood he can give you something in return.’
Through offering companionship, the poor are treated with respect, ‘not only as an equal, but as a superior, since they are suffering what perhaps we are incapable of suffering’.
For further information about the project, Mario can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org