North West Disability Services - Deborah Mills OAM - Part 2


Interviewee: Deborah Mills OAM, born 1954

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 11 March 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, March 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

What is the transition to work programme? How does that work?

That’s for people when they leave school that might not yet be ready to go into employment. But the opportunity is for a two year programme. We’ll work with those individuals and hopefully as soon as possible transition them out. Either into a supported employment programme or an open employment programme. It’s been highly effective with our organisation. Quite a few years ago we actually leased a building which was called Aberdoon House from Baulkham Hills Shire Council and we turned that into a coffee shop, art gallery. From that coffee shop, art gallery we trained our individuals in our transition work programme to be a lot more confidant and assertive. We particularly trained them in the hospitality industry and we had a partnership with Baulkham Hills TAFE with that. They would go to TAFE one day a week to learn the skills of hospitality and then the rest of the week they’d work at the coffee shop. We were that successful that the thirty individuals that we had in our transition to work programme all transitioned out to employment and moved on. Aberdoon House really got a fantastic reputation for just being a lovely little coffee shop and meeting the needs of the community.

The post school programme you’ve mentioned already. That focuses on skill development does it? How do you develop their skills?

With the post school programme as I said it’s divided into community participation or transition to work. In the community participation programme the programme is for people who might not actually transition to work any stage in the future. So it’s really the moderate to high support needs individuals. They’re more challenged with challenging behaviour or physical support needs that limit them in the opportunity to function in the community like anyone else would. What we try to do in that programme is to teach them living skills and connect them with the community as much as we possibly can. We have person centred planning and personalisation of the disability industry. That’s something that our organisations been working on for quite a few years. It’s about finding out what the real needs are of that individual. What their passions are and what will make them flourish within society and within their own lives. So whatever we can do to support that that’s what we do in those programmes. It could be a whole gamut of different activities, functioning, some support training skills that will help that person achieve what they want to achieve in their own lives.

A cafe at Aberdoon House Rouse Hill was leased by North West Disability Services c.2004

Does the community participate in any of these programmes?

We have a big involvement with volunteers in the organisation and throughout that time we’ve also been involved with a lot of the service clubs. The Rotary clubs, the Lions club and Soroptimist clubs have all been massive supporters of our organisation over the years. The Baulkham Hills Lions Club comes in regularly on a Friday night with our discos. They cook up a barbeque for everybody at the disco and help them there. The Rotary clubs have come in and helped us with gardening projects and created things for us. We’ve just had massive support with the community over the years. I don’t think there’d be any other organisation that would be as well supported as we have been.

It must be very difficult to keep coming up with new ideas for particular days for them. Like you mentioned before you have a Hawaiian Day one day and a Manly day to the beach. I mean how many things can you actually invent?

Well just about anything I suppose. It’s not really about us as the staff inventing it. It’s about the actual service users and the individuals involved in the programmes. It’s about them getting together and throwing around ideas and saying “what would you like to do”? “Where would you like to go”? We draw on just about everything. We had a volunteer came on board and when they come on board we actually ask them what are their skills, what are their hobbies and what are they interested in? Every new person that comes through the door brings new interests, new talents and new skills to the organisation. One young gentleman when he came and joined us he told us that he collected snakes and they’re those cute little yellow garter snakes. I don’t think they’re so cute but everybody else thought they were pretty cute. So he suggested one day would you like me to bring them in. So one group said yeah of course. So he brought his snakes in for the day and gave us a big talk on the snakes and let everybody hold the snakes or touch them. Those ones that was game. That’s like a new interest area and something that people can find out about. So everybody who comes to the organisation brings something new and something different. We pick up on that and we encourage that involvement as much as we possibly can. We’ve had some great belly dancers over the years. We’ve had some really fantastic opportunities that people have brought to the organisation.

I believe you have a very good art programme?

Very pleased with our art programme it’s been something that we’ve been working on for five or six years now. It’s an involvement with the access2art programme also again run by the Council. We have five organisations in Hills area that are involved in that. There are schools and other disability services. The art is produced in our organisations over the year and then we have an art display on the 3rd December which is International Day for People with Disabilities each year. Then that display stays at the gallery right through until the end of January. We’ve had five displays now and the art is just absolutely fantastic as you can probably see on the walls in my office. It’s just amazing stuff.

Textile Weaving by Marianne in access2art 2008

Are there any music programmes at all?

We have a staff person who has a Masters of Music and she’s developing music programmes. We’re trying to develop a choir here at the moment. We’ve all been watching The Choir of Hard Knocks on television. It’s really inspired us and I really think we can do some good work with the choir. We have an enormous range of musical instruments. We have some great drums as well, big African drums, that the service users get to I suppose release a bit of energy on them. They really enjoy that sort of thing.

Sounds wonderful, what about cooking or food programmes are there any such things?

As you walk through our building you’ll see that every area has a microwave or has some sort of cooking apparatus. It’s a big part of our day. It’s about living skills and it’s about developing those skills for people. Quite often cooking programmes are part of our day. We’ve had lots of little enclaves over the years where we’ve cooked up slices. We’ve had a couple of programmes where the service users would cook up the cookies or the particularly nice rocky road that they were making at one stage. They would wrap that, package that and then sell that around the building. Sell it to the other staff and other buildings around the area. We have a great Friends for Lunch programme as well that quite a few people have been invited to over the years. The programme develops exactly what they’re going to do over about three or four weeks. They send out invitations and they invite specific people to come and have lunch with them. They’ll cook up the meal and prepare the table and I suppose get quite engrossed in the process of bringing someone into the building and enjoying a luncheon with them.

I believe that you had at one time Police Academy students on placement here?

We did, yes.

How did that work out?

That was a fantastic project. It was with Charles Sturt University and they had their police programme happening and they were looking at bringing people into the community. I heard about this through my connections through Charles Sturt. I contacted them and I said “I’d love them to come into our disability organisation”. They thought that was a unique idea and we brought them on board. Over about two years we had the police students in. They would come in and they’d spend up to four weeks with us. I thought it was a marvellous opportunity. The police students would come in not really ever having anything to do with people with disabilities whatsoever. By the time they left the organisation they really had a good understanding of how to communicate with people with disabilities. How I suppose people with disabilities are misunderstood in the community. As we know over seventy percent of the people in our prison systems have disabilities. So it’s really important that our police can respond to somebody with a disability in an appropriate manner. Take the time to understand that just because somebody’s not communicating effectively or because they’re upset that it’s not necessarily a criminal action.

Service Users Christmas Party North West Disability Services 2008

Of course to recognise in the disability how they should respond?

That’s right, yes. It’s quite unique that somebody with an intellectual disability, when you’re chatting to them they’ll quite often nod their head and agree with you and if you weren’t aware might assume that they’re agreeing with what you’re saying. But with an intellectual disability they might not be understanding actually what you’re talking to them about. Then on the other side you might have somebody with a physical disability who can’t communicate at all and may be in a wheelchair and restricted in a lot of different ways. You might be talking to them and because they can’t communicate, quite often people assume that person doesn’t understand what they’re saying and doesn’t have a high intellect. We have people in this organisation who just have fantastic memories and are so capable and the limitation is their communication back to you. It’s quite frustrating for them sitting in their wheelchair to have somebody talking to them with a big loud voice and standing over the top of them assuming that they don’t understand. When they understand completely and thoroughly and probably better than you and I.

You have a programme currently with two medical students is that right? How is that working out?

Two students have just finished, they finished last Friday. We’ve got two new students started on Monday. That’s a new programme we’ve only just started that and the students are in their third year at university in their medical training. They’ll be coming out as doctors very soon. The concept was to bring them into the community and to introduce them to disabilities. It was quite interesting when we were chatting to the two students that finished the other day. Saying “what introduction to disabilities did you have in your medical training”? They said “well to date we had some basics in our first year but we really haven’t interacted with people with disabilities”. The five weeks that they’ve spent with us has just been amazing. They were just blown away with the opportunity and the insight that they now have. It’s not only insight into the individual with the disability but also insight into the struggles and difficulties that their families face. The impact that having a person with a disability can have on the whole family which is a really important thing for them to understand as well. So that when they have somebody that comes to them whether they have a disability themselves or whether they have a person in their family with a disability. That they can understand the frustrations or the difficulties and the dramas that they have in their everyday life they’ve got to overcome. So they can approach that a little bit differently I think.

Alan Cadman with competitors at FESPIC Games held at Balcombe Heights 1977

The last programme that we haven’t spoken about is the Work for the Dole programme?

That’s something that came about quite a few years ago. When we heard about that we were really keen to get on board. Alan Cadman was our local member at that stage. Most people would know Alan in this area because he’s been in politics for so long. There’s been enormous support for our organisation and we thank him for a lot of things that he’s done for us. I contacted Alan and said “this is something that we ought to get involved with”. Because we were already a large volunteer organisation we could see the opportunity in having a large number of people come through the Work for the Dole Project and to teach them about disabilities. I think our organisation has been particularly successful in that programme. It has waned a lot over the years. In the last couple of years it’s reduced because of the high employment rate that was happening. When a lot of people were going through that programme we had people coming in the door who had never seen a person with a disability or been in contact with a person with a disability before.

I can remember one gentleman came in the door and he came in and I invited him in. He was a bit wide eyed when he walked in the door. He said “I’ve just been sent down here from Centrelink and I’m supposed to be on the Work for the Dole project but I don’t really think I’m in the right place”. I said “no, no, no you’re in the right place please come in and sit down”. I sat him down in front of me and he said “well what am I supposed to be doing here”? I said “well we’re a disability organisation and this is what we do”. He basically got out of the chair and I had to follow him out the front door and I stopped him at his car out the front. We chatted a little bit longer and I encouraged him to come in and sit down again. He said “well I don’t really know anything about disabilities and I’m really nervous about being around people with disabilities. I don’t know what they’re going to do and I don’t know how they’re going to act”. I said “well that’s what this programme is all about. This is something that you can learn”. He stayed and he became one of the best workers with old people that we’ve ever had. He’s now on our board of management. He’s stayed with the organisation and volunteered for the organisation even after his Work for the Dole project had finished. We had numerous people that came through that programme exactly the same. They were really nervous they had no understanding of what was going to be expected of them working with somebody with a disability. Once they got on board with us if they stayed for two weeks we had them. That’s what happens with volunteers with us as well.

Deborah Mills received an OAM at Government House Sydney

If they’ve stayed with us for that long then once they’ve settled in and they understand what we’re all about they become a part of our family. Honestly we’ve had volunteers with the organisation that have been here for over twenty years and it’s just enormous. We had three gentlemen at one stage. They were all very similar in age and their names were John Barnard, Doug Sewell and Ken Jones. Those gentlemen had volunteered with this organisation for over twenty years. It was just amazing. I always remember Ken Jones. He’s an interesting gentleman, he’s past away now. He used to… if I asked him to sign anything he’d say “yep Deb” he said “do you realise with two dollars and that signature you can buy a beer in any pub in Australia”.

Is your service in a growth industry?

The Stronger Together initiative that the government has brought in has changed disability services. The whole emphasis on disability services has changed over the last five years. We can really see now that we have a State government that believes that people with disabilities deserve to be looked after. That they have a right to be a part of their community and that they shouldn’t have to strive and struggle and plead to receive the correct services. With the Stronger Together initiative they’re going to grow disability services by over a third in the next four years. So there’s going to be enormous growth in the industry. There’s a lot of money being put into the industry to meet the unmet need that’s been there for so long. I believe that we’re really coming of age and disability services are starting to respond appropriately to what people really need in the community.

What’s been the growth in staff numbers in you own organisation in the last fifteen years?

I think we had three staff in our day programmes when we first started and a couple of staff that came in for short hours. We now have a hundred and twenty staff with North West and it’s growing all the time. We employed thirteen new staff only two weeks ago. It’s just amazing this… I don’t think people understand that disability services are such a large business within any local government area. For us to be a fairly large employer is something the general community isn’t aware of and that is going to continue to grow. We can see that, that will continue to develop.

So you’ve got one hundred and twenty staff over how many locations?

We have five different locations. We have this main location here at Baulkham Hills. We have one at Balcombe Heights which is Lavender Cottage. We have Gemhill Cottage which I spoke about before our respite facility at Castle Hill. We have Aberdoon House at Rouse Hill and we have Opal Cottage out at Richmond now.

Lavender Cottage (building 33 at Balcombe Heights) is used by North
West Disability Services for therapeutic and recreational programmes

How many vehicles do you have to transport people around?

Our problem is our bus system in this area is a little bit difficult. For people to get out and back to community activities is really difficult. So we’ve had a need for buses. We’ve had enormous support from the community to raise funds and to purchase vehicles for the organisation. At the moment we have about eighteen vehicles with the organisation. Different sized buses. We have two Coaster buses and a number of commuter buses and cars.

In terms of funding are you funded purely by the Council?

No we’re actually funded mainly by the State government. The majority of our funds come straight from State government. We have very little Federal funding. We have the occasional bit of Federal funding that comes through on a special project. We have other organisations that provide funding to us. We’ve talked about the service clubs, Rotaries and Lions and such organisations as United Way. We put applications in to them each year. They’ve been an enormous supporter of us for over five or six years providing money to take people away on camps and holidays and trips. Council as I said has always been a good supporter of our organisation and they assist us. Not so much with dollar value funding but in other ways. The general community I suppose. We’ve been very fortunate with a lot of the businesses in this area. Two years ago we had Gremmo Homes which is a local building company that is made up of four brothers. They got together and they supported us to build an add on construction to our building. It was something that I couldn’t raise the funs for. It was going to cost us three hundred thousand dollars to build. They pulled in about fifty of their mates in the building industry to donate and provide services and materials and equipment. They built that building for us for thirty thousand dollars, which is all it cost us to make it happen. That’s the sort of community involvement… these particular people are just amazing.

What’s your focus for the service now, at the present time?

I think we’re an organisation that will probably continue to grow over the next few years. We have a triple bottom line focus and we talk about focussing and being an organisation that provides really good quality services to people with disabilities. We act as an employer of people. As you know we have a large number of staff, volunteers and people that are associated with our organisation. We have a focus towards supporting those people and looking after those people the best we can. We believe some of the employment strategies and things that we’ve implemented with our organisation are at the head of the game. They’re benchmarks for the way people support their staff in the industry. We also have a focus on the community. As an organisation we have a need to support our community and feedback to the community. One of the big things that we’ve been working with in the last few years is introducing our people with disabilities into helping the community themselves in return. A lot of them do that naturally anyway.

It’s a way of encouraging people to feed back to their community so they’re not only being supported by their community but they’re contributing to it as well. We’ve had some really fantastic projects where different groups and different individuals have got together and raised funds for Operation Cleft. Sending money over for cleft palate operations in Bangladesh. They’ve adopted a stream in the area and they go and do testing on that stream in the Stream Watch programme. They help with Meals on Wheels and contribute back to the community like that. We have another group that cooks up a morning tea each week and they go and take that to the senior citizens in their area and provide them with morning tea and interact with them. There is so many of these projects and they’re always working with those. We’re looking at the Shave programme for cancer at the moment. They’re all raising money and putting money together for that. So it’s not just about raising money for our own organisation and feeding back into our own organisation. It’s about giving back to the community as well. We encourage that as much as we can.

North West Disability Services Eco Gardening Project at Fagan Park Galston

I believe there’s been a fundamental shift in funding from block funding for a number of people to individual funding. What’s your battle there that you’re having?

Hopefully that battle is nearly over. Hopefully we’ve won the battle. We’re not quite there yet. It’s been a long process. Traditionally disability organisations have been block funded. There has been a move and a shift. I suppose we’ve been pushing it along for over ten years now. We’ve been encouraging the individualised funding of people. When we talk about individualised funding we talk about people being empowered to be in control of their own money. They would be allocated a package of money to either go and purchase their own services or mange their own programmes. Manage their own life really. We believe that that’s the ideal way that people with disabilities should function. That the funding that government provides should be distributed. They’re moving now into accommodation services. We’re looking at individualising the funding for accommodation services. It’s not appropriate that a person with a disability should be told where they should live or who they should live with. It’s much more appropriate that they should have their own funding. They should be able to choose the service provider that they wish to provide them with accommodation services, who they live with, where they live and how that money is spent. It’s been a big push for individualised funding. I believe that we’re nearly winning the battle and that we’re nearly there. It’ll be something to see in the next few years. How that manifests and how that really works out for people.

What do you think have been the greatest benefits to this community of having your service?

Of having North West Disability Services here I think we’re a great organisation. I think we have a unique role to play in the community. We are like a big family. If you have the opportunity to meet any of our staff and our volunteers the people when they come here they enjoy being here. It’s nice to think that it’s an organisation that’s not only providing a service but it’s providing a unique quality to the community as well. I think we’ll be here for a long time to come. I think we’re a very innovative organisation. The people that know us and are associated with us have a great opportunity to benefit in so many different ways.

Arris Group Award 2005 presented to North West Disability Services

You have a great personal level of satisfaction being able to do this job?

I do, I do I recently went to a C E O’s training session at Macquarie Bank in Sydney. Where they were partnering up C E O’s with businesses and C E O’s of community organisations. It was quite lovely in at the Macquarie Bank and they looked after us very well in there. They asked us what “were our needs for the future”? I said “well it’s a problem for me, should we just grow bigger and bigger is that what we’re about or is it OK to stay small and to stay unique and stay special”? They asked me “well how long have you been with the organisation”? At that stage I’d been here fourteen years and the C E O’s of Macquarie Bank, and the C E O’s of Carnival the shipping line who were there present thought that “well gee maybe it’s time you moved on”. They really got me thinking. I thought “well gee maybe it is time that I moved on”. I think I’ve dwelled on that question a little bit and decided that “no I’ve still got a bit more that I can contribute and I’ve got a lot more that I can give”. So when the time comes I’ll probably know when to move on.

What’s your greatest hope now for your service?

I hope that we can continue to do what we’ve been doing. I think we’re valuable. I think we can continue to grow. I have a lot of carers come to me often and who move to different areas of Sydney and ask “when are you going to start a service in that area or this area”? “When are you going to mover to southern Sydney”? “They really need something like North West Disability Service to have down there”. I think that’s a compliment that they can see that there is something unique about us and the way we present. We do partner with other organisations. I’ve just been asked today to help mentor two new managers of another organisation who are just moving into day programmes want to make sure that they have a really good foundation and a good knowledge and awareness of how they should present those programmes. I suppose that’s a compliment to our organisation to say that other organisations see the value in what we do.

Have you become a model for similar organisations do you think?

I don’t know if we’re a model. But we set benchmarks in bits and pieces in lots of different ways. We look at other organisations and see some fantastic things that they’re doing too. We pinch ideas and if we see something that’s happening that’s great. We’re quite happy to adapt something that somebody else has invented or achieved or designed. I think that’s something that the industry does. I think we all learn from each other and I hope that we’ll continue to do that.

So what’s your biggest challenge now and into the future do you think?

Our biggest challenge is to really make sure that we’re personalising the service that we provide to our people. We need to make sure that what we’re doing is the very best that we can do for the person with a disability. That everything that we contribute to their day or their life is something that’s going to help them flourish in the future. If we can do that then we’re achieving what we should be achieving within this organisation. In that process we have to make sure that we’re bringing our staff along as well and bringing our volunteers along with us on the journey. That we’re doing the best that we can to look after them too because they have families and they have their own lives they’re people that just deserve to be looked after and to be supported as best we can as well. It’s looking after everybody the best we can.