Jeremy Vargo

By Jeremy Vargo - 20/04/2016

Jeremy Vargo

By Jeremy Vargo -

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Connecting communities with help

Last week I had a fascinating conversation. I was talking with Lisa Woolley in her office at VisionWest: a large community services organisation she leads in West Auckland. With over 400 staff and volunteers, the organisation provides services to more than 11,000 people each year, from home help for seniors and training for job seekers, to operating a foodbank and community housing. The breadth of their work is impressive, but their brand new housing development seems to be what’s stoking Lisa’s passion at the moment. 

The way that Lisa describes it, housing is at the core of so much of the need in her community: if you don’t have a secure and healthy home for your family, other problems are amplified by that stress. But a house isn’t a cure-all; Lisa and her team see their housing as a safe place for the necessary next steps of ongoing social work to occur. Each family in their housing has a dedicated social worker responsible for getting to know that particular family, and figuring out what else they might need in order to thrive. Lisa believes in this “supportive housing” model so much, she went and did her Master’s thesis on it; providing a foundation of evidence from which VisionWest continues to build.

The success of this “wrap around” approach to social work, caring for the whole person and their family is what led Lisa and her team to create a new “front door” to the organisation: the Wh?nau Centre.  Where new visitors to VisionWest previously had to tell their story and explain their needs to volunteers and social workers at the foodbank, the training centre, and the housing unit, they are now welcomed by one person at the Wh?nau Centre. They sit down privately, and talk about how they’re going, and how VisionWest might be able to help them. From there, they’re paired up with a social worker who will connect them with the services they need, and more importantly, help them to feel connected to the large community around VisionWest. 

I’d heard about this kind of approach before. Last year I interviewed Diane Robertson, who was the head of the Auckland City Mission for over twenty years. She led the organisation to adopt a similar “interview” model for new clients years ago, putting the onus on the social workers to listen to the whole story of each person, and use their expertise to figure out which services would really help them. Diane said that a huge part of their work was assisting their clients to navigate the hugely complex system of Government services; bureaucratic agencies whose systems can intimidate and confuse the very people they’re designed to help. 

Services like VisionWest and Auckland City Mission have it right. If we really want to help people, there needs to be care for the whole person, and their family. People who need support to get into housing are quite likely to need help with budgeting, up skilling to get into work, and would probably love someone to give them a hand looking after their family. And it’s not just services. Both Lisa and Diane talked about the fundamental human need to belong somewhere, and to feel accepted and known by a group of people. These social ties work to heal things that money or services can’t touch.

Two things stuck out from that fascinating conversation. First, it is so important for us to provide better links between the services available to struggling New Zealanders. Second, and probably more important, strong community solutions require a strong community of people who are ready to offer friendship and belonging for people who need it most. 

*An abridged version of this article was first printed in the Northland Age 19/04/16

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Jeremy Vargo

By Jeremy Vargo -

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