NETWORK PROJECTS -
ENABLING COMMUNITIES: FROM THE HEART OF THE COMMUNITY
Background to the project
The Upper Murray Regional Neighbourhood House Network was successful in securing funding through the Victorian Government Mental Health and Wellbeing Bushfire Response Package in May 2020 for the Enabling Communities: From the heart of the community project.
There are over 400 neighbourhood houses spread across metro, regional and rural Victoria. Most receive funding through the State Government Neighbourhood House Coordination Program.
In the Upper Murray Network, we have 16 neighbourhood houses located in 12 different communities across six Local Government Areas. Most are not for profit incorporated associations with committees or boards – there are some that are auspiced by other organisations such as councils, and connected to their communities through advisory groups.
The neighbourhood houses vary in size, reach and diversity – although size doesn’t necessarily indicate impact! Small neighbourhood houses can have a massive impact. Consider Pangerang Community House in Wangaratta, where a small group of volunteers made over 1700 masks early in the COVID pandemic, and Birallee Park Neighbourhood House in Wodonga where volunteers cooked over 3000 meals, and packed and distributed them to bushfire affected communities.
The work of neighbourhood houses is underpinned by community development principles that have been developed for the neighbourhood house sector, including community ownership and participation, empowerment, and access and equity. Volunteers play a critical role in most neighbourhood houses, and many volunteers talk about their personal growth through their involvement with their local neighbourhood house.
Neighbourhood houses have a strong focus on reducing loneliness and isolation, and creating connections. They work with some of the most hard to reach parts of the community, through programs such as emergency food relief, Centrelink, disability programs, and by hosting services such as employment services, counselling, & maternal and child health. Many also take on volunteers through community service orders.
Neighbourhood houses receive ongoing funding through the State government that allows them to do Community Development work that responds to their communities. We are incredibly fortunate to have access to such a flexible funding source that respects the place of the neighbourhood house in their community and their imperative to respond to local need.
This is where neighbourhood houses really prove themselves as effective partners for other organisations and services because of that flexibility, and because (generally speaking) they are very well connected to their communities – particularly more vulnerable parts of the community that are often difficult to engage.
Neighbourhood houses provide a place for people to connect and support these connections. Connections in the community are one of the most important protective and recovery factors, which is why neighbourhood house play such an important part in recovery and mental health prevention work.
The Enabling Communities project
Neighbourhood houses do sit at the heart of their communities, and we wanted to capture that with the project name.
We were encouraged to apply for the funding by Department staff who were very familiar with the work of our neighbourhood houses and could see their intersection with the recovery space.
At the time we were delivering a gambling harm reduction project based on a ‘hub and spoke’ model where the Network applied for and managed the funds and the neighbourhood houses applied for funding from the Network to deliver small local initiatives aimed at reducing isolation and loneliness – contributing factors to problem gambling.
This model was upscaled, with the neighbourhood houses in the identified bushfire affected areas developing local initiatives to meet community needs. We contracted Anne Leadbeater as the project consultant because of her many years' experience working as the manager of Kinglake Neighbourhood House, and her vast experience in emergency recovery and planning. She could see the potential for this approach and together we developed the model and application in consultation with the six participating neighbourhood houses.
The project aims were to:
Empower each community to work with their neighbourhood house to design and deliver local initiatives that will benefit recovery and resilience
Build the capacity of participating neighbourhood houses to respond more effectively to emergencies by developing a recovery plan that will link to broader emergency plans within their LGA
Support neighbourhood houses to be included in future emergency planning
The project rolled out in two stages – Stage 1 was about understanding the needs of the community and Stage 2 involved the neighbourhood houses working with their community to develop locally responsive initiatives. This stage also involved the development of a Recovery Action Plan that would help place the neighbourhood house strategically in recovery response.
We always considered this project to be a long term development, which was one of the great advantages of it being two year funding. It gave the opportunity for the neighbourhood houses to engage fully with their communities during the initial recovery activity, observe the emerging needs - recognising recovery as a long term process – and then work with the community over time to develop initiatives that would have a longer term impact.
Of course, we didn’t realise at the time the impact of COVID on the recovery process, but we soon recognised the opportunity for us – almost as guinea pigs – to observe and evaluate what the impact of COVID might have on the ‘normal’ recovery process.
We set up an application process. Each neighbourhood house had to apply for Stage 1 & Stage 2 of the funding seperately. Four of the neighbourhood houses could access up to $40K, the other two that were more directly impacted by the fires could access up to $50K. The application process has been rigorous as we felt it was very important that the neighbourhood houses were clear about what they were trying to achieve, how this would impact on the mental health and wellbeing of their communities and contribute to overall recovery.
Stage 1 of the project was all about working with the community to identify what the needs were. We had anticipated that this stage would include a lot of face to face community work, such as the community picnic which Mt Beauty Neighbourhood Centre had planned. COVID had a significant impact on this, so they had to find other ways of engaging and getting the information they needed. This included some pretty nimble work organising events in between lockdowns, running hybrid events that brought in additional people online into a face to face workshop space (which is what MACE did in Mansfield), and tapping into council run consultations and surveys.
Several of the neighbourhood houses remained open during COVID lockdown providing essential services such as Centrelink, emergency food and computer and internet access. This meant people were coming into the neighbourhood houses, and staff and volunteers used this as an opportunity to chat and find out how people were feeling and get an understanding of what they needed.
There was a lot of diversity in the local initiatives undertaken by the six participating neighbourhood houses.
At CorryongNeighbourhood Centre (CNC) their focus is on youth. They have run a successful youth program for several years. The tragedy of losing six young men over the last two years – four of these to suicide – has meant youth mental health is a priority in the community, with many services and activities to support young people and their families. CNC identified the need for activities that would bring young people together to have fun, to rebuild their social connections in an informal environment, and give them autonomy to choose how they want to gather and what activities they want to plan and undertake. This is the basis of their project.
At King Valley Learning Exchange (KVLE) based in Moyhu, they partnered with Rural City of Wangaratta to gather data through a community survey. From this survey, the have identified three gaps – a secure source of food for the community during an emergency; access to tools and equipment needed for recovery activities; and trained volunteers who could work in both these areas. They are developing systems and process to make these more accessible during an emergency.
As a Council-run neighbourhood house, Tallangatta Neighbourhood House has worked closely with their Advisory Group (which includes most members of the Community Recovery Committee), as well as engagement staff at Towong Council to understand the gaps in the community. Their local project focuses on emergency planning and preparedness events, and community connecting events.
MACE in Mansfield worked closely with the Emergency Management staff at Mansfield Council and ran an extensive consultation process with various agencies and other stakeholders as a first step. From the resulting workshop they identified a number of gaps, including the need for community profiling to identify the existing assets and resources, and better communications that would help the community be better prepared. Their project is working on these areas.
Myrtleford Neighbourhood Centre engaged with local community groups and organisations, Alpine Shire Council and the Community Recovery Committee, as well as their own committee and other volunteers. They identified the need for community mapping, and the development of a community action plan for emergencies. This has led onto a successful application to FRRR to be part of the Disaster Resilient: Future Ready (DR:FR) Victorian Program.
Mt Beauty Neighbourhood Centre are working on an extensive community awareness and preparedness program. Activities include a regular community radio program, the establishment of the Community Resilience Group, the development of a core group of volunteers with appropriate training who can help community members prepare their properties before the bushfire season, and the Are You OK? community picnic.
Stage 2 of the project also includes each neighbourhood house developing their Recovery Action Plan. In the development of their plans, committees strategically consider how they will position their neighbourhood house in the recovery space – what role they want the neighbourhood house to take, what resources might need to be directed to that position, what partnerships/relationships need to be developed. Their plan will reflect these decisions.
Impact on the Network
The project has had a significant and very positive impact on the Upper Murray Neighbourhood House Network itself. It has progressed our thinking about the role of neighbourhood houses in recovery and resilience building in the community. It has also highlighted how the Network works with our community of neighbourhood houses, especially in relation to project development and delivery. We’ve been invited into several working groups and committees, including the working group for the development of the VCOSS Outcomes Framework for Community Organisations, and Ovens Murray Mental Health Alliance. This has come about because people are increasingly recognising the role of neighbourhood houses in resilience and community building work.
There will be learnings from this project that will be shared with other neighbourhood houses in the Network and more broadly across the State, especially the development of Recovery Action Plans.