DAVID CHAPMAN made the short trip to Tongala to discover the secret of its hugely successful, and volunteer driven, community activities centre, set up with public funding more than 40 years ago
TONGALA WOULD NOT be the thriving community it is today if not for the tireless work of a group of dedicated and hard working women.
The group of about 15 help run a central hub in the town which offers everything from Tai Chi, patchwork classes and computers for beginners to first aid courses and to lessons in English for Korean workers at the local abattoir.
There is also an after-school program and childcare centre on offer.
More importantly, it is also a social focus for people who may be living alone or feel isolated in their lifestyle.
The doors, it seems, are always open for anyone to drop in for just a cuppa and a chat.
The place is the Tongala Community Activities Centre and it has served the community since its humble beginnings in 1977.
In one month 250 people passed through the centre’s doors and that number continues to grow — no mean feat for a town of just 1926 people.
Department of Health and Human Services and Neighbourhood House Victoria fund the centre, which has a volunteer committee of management to oversee its governance.
One of those volunteers is Pat McMeeken, who has been involved with the centre since 1999 when it moved from ‘The Cottage’ next door.
“Women wanted somewhere to go, someone to talk to,” Pat said of the centre’s beginnings.
“It’s like being part of a family.”
Another volunteer, Julie Dullard, is a librarian at Tongala Primary School and was approached to be the facilitator of the centre’s after-school program.
Her background knowledge on how to care and guide children on the right path has been invaluable.
A flexible program sees schoolchildren take part in a variety of activities, from running and ball games to drawing and playdough.
“We have after-school snacks for them and always start with a positive talk about what they did on the weekend,” Julie said.
She said the centre had been overwhelmed by the gratitude of the parents who appreciated having somewhere for their children to go after school in a safe environment.
“We have artwork from the children on the walls and to see their faces when they walk in and see that is priceless.
“It’s a very inclusive program where everyone is treated the same,” she said.
“We have kids here who are not always asked to be the captain of a side in the school yard.
“It’s about building self-esteem and watching them grow.
“Making those small differences is rewarding.”
Earlier this year a group of schoolchildren prepared a two-course meal of broccoli soup and hamburgers and invited 15 members of the community to enjoy the lunch.
But it’s not only the young who benefit from the women who staff at the centre.
Vicki Rossborough moved to Tongala in 2014 to be close to family and grandchildren.
She helps people with photocopying and the computer novices who need assistance in applying for jobs or filling out forms.
Ruth Scown said Korean workers at the local abattoirs drop in for a class in conversational English once a week.
“We even spent a day on Aussie slang,” she said.
The centre also offers free Wi-Fi to allow the workers to stay in touch with loved ones back home.
Another volunteer, Christine Coventry, has been at the centre for more than a year, having moved back to Tongala from Bendigo.
She said seeing people drop in simply for a cup of tea, simply to talk to someone without judgement has been overwhelming.
“I’ve had that verbalised twice to me in the last couple of months,” she said.
“For someone to come and sit down opposite another person and connect.
“It felt very comfortable to talk woman to woman and they want to come back.
“It’s a beautiful thing because some people have nowhere to go.
“We all feel very proud. If the centre wasn’t here, there would be an enormous gap in the community
“There are a lot of people who live alone and how would they stay connected with the community otherwise? Who listens to them?
“All the little jobs volunteers do benefit Tongala,” she said.
“It’s a fantastic facility that’s really underused.”
Sue Duggan has lived in Tonny 20 years and joined the centre this year.
She was approached while gardening in her front yard and asked to assist with the afterschool program.
Having recently undergone a shoulder replacement, she joined to help the community “rather than sitting on my bottom”.
Centre co-ordinator Deidre Madill took on her role earlier this year having spent 15 years as a PR manager at a hospital.
She said it was a constant battle to get more funding and gradually increase hours of the centre.
“There are a lot of younger families moving in because of affordable housing but while they live here they may have to work out of town,” she said.
To illustrate that fact, at the primary school, there used to be composite grades but now there are two grade fives and a separate grade one and two, so numbers are starting to come back.
Deidre said the centre regularly collected data to show how much it used within the community.
“It all helps us identify needs on how best to help the community,” she said.
The centre is at risk of losing its funding for childcare and has been in constant communication with local MPs such as Damian Drum to back their cause.
“We help find pathways for people to go, whether they need counsellors or social workers." she said.
“With the computer class we charge a very nominal fee because we need the class to run, but we are applying for funding to help out.
“We try to keep things affordable.
“The demographic keeps changing and we need to change.
“It’s about talking, listening and adapting to the bigger picture.
“The centre has such awesome people working here and they’re very approachable,” Deidre said.
The centre’s evening craft class has also grown in numbers.
“Ladies come in and sit and chat and have a great camaraderie. It’s that contact, of not feeling alone,” she said.
“There’s a quilt show coming up in October and we’re helping to organise that.”
Deidre said the centre tried to encourage the community to just drop in for a cuppa.
“It’s about instigating a conversation, getting people in the door and finding out what they need.
“And it’s infectious. Seeing people growing is one of the biggest achievements of the centre.”