The bushfires affecting many NSW coastal communities took lives, destroyed homes and businesses and caused widespread job losses. Then came the second shock that no one had expected, coronavirus.
Sparked by the rapid COVID-19 lockdown, the Vinnies network of volunteers and staff in the Illawarra Region swung into action, working in accordance with the restrictions of the pandemic to focus on those who needed help, materially or emotionally, in this time of crisis.
When other regional services closed their doors, the Vinnies Coniston Hub in Wollongong remained open five days a week to offer a clean and safe space for people to access food, and case management and to see a friendly face.
Even in normal times the Hub was kept busy helping people sleeping rough or in insecure housing, as well as families and elderly folk struggling to make ends meet. Now, things needed to gear up. From the early days of the pandemic case workers outreached to clients, offering help with accommodation, essential supplies, medical and mental health services.
At a time when disadvantage and social isolation were heightened for the most vulnerable, the Coniston Hub continued providing the compassion, friendship and support that Vinnies is known for across the state.
According to the Coniston Hub’s Community Engagement Officer Danielle Jolliffe, “Staff and volunteers made and distributed over 1200 meals and had 1800 visitors seeking assistance from midMarch to end-May. The assistance we offered included finding housing for the lockdown period.”
Because of health-related age restrictions the Coniston Hub had limited volunteers on site. The hard-working Illawarra Shoalhaven Van was still seeing up to 30 people per session, despite lower turnouts because of the COVID-19 threat. The emphasis was on balancing social distancing and social interaction.
The Hub worked with the nearby University of Wollongong to provide food relief to international students, connecting them with support networks and delivering fresh bread to those staying on campus.
Wearing protective equipment, volunteers with the Van continued to deliver meals, sandwiches, snacks, drinks, fresh fruit and vegetables, bread and essentials, four nights a week throughout Wollongong, Warrawong, Albion Park and Bellambi.
“We are so grateful for the amazing support of our many volunteers, including those with the Van, our staff, partners and donors who enabled us to continue providing these essential services during a truly critical time,” said Renee Cooper, Regional Director-South.
“Particularly heartening was the way the Illawarra Shoalhaven community came together with Vinnies in new ways. As the colder weather set in, a group of caring locals started knitting beanies and scarves for visitors to the van.
“We also had help with food supplies from Ozharvest, Secondbite, Aldi, David Jones, as well as local clubs WIN Entertainment Centre, Shellharbour Club and West Leagues Club, who generously provided fresh produce for the Van and hubs. Quilton and 360 also helped with daily living supplies at a time when essentials like toilet paper were scarce and expensive.”
♦ Robin Osborne is Communications and Marketing Partner St Vincent de Paul Society Lismore Central Council.