Every diocese in Australia has a ‘CentaCare’ – the formal social service arm of the Catholic Church. CentaCares in the larger cities have been operating for many years eg. CentaCare (rebranded as CatholicCare) Sydney celebrated 70 years in 2011.
It took longer for CentCares to be established in regional and rural dioceses, as the Church had smaller infrastructures and therefore greater concerns as to how a CentaCare would operate and be supported. In the mid-nineties, a new Bishop was appointed to the diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes; Bishop Barry Collins.
This was a time of serious drought, and the Bishop soon became aware of the stress and depression within communities of the diocese, and was concerned how the Church could respond. The Bishop had come in from Sydney where he was well aware of the works of CentaCare, and he saw the obvious need for similar services for western NSW. So he started to ask around how he could start a CentaCare operation in the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes.
Sr. Margaret Flynn; a Loreto sister and psychologist had been working with CentaCare in Melbourne, and was eventually asked to move to the diocese and see what she could do to establish a CentaCare for this western 52 per cent of New South Wales.
So it was, that CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes was established on 23 January 1996. The Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes is the poorest diocese in Australia, so the beginnings were extremely humble. A store room was cleared of old desks, cobwebs and plaster and dust which had fallen out of the walls – to be the office of the new CentaCare director.
The Bishop was nervous about spending money as the diocese had so little, so the office was furnished with an old school desk and chair, a second hand electric typewriter with five keys missing and that was about it! No motor vehicle either!
So CentaCare opened its doors offering a counselling service. Meanwhile, the Bishop in his enthusiasm had announced to the diocese that CentaCare services were now available, and Margaret was receiving calls from all parts of the diocese seeking help – particularly from the schools.
What could one person do? Sometimes counselling was offered by phone, others while on the road – such as holding sessions on the verandah of the presbytery in Nyngan where she made an overnight stop on her way to Bourke, providing counselling to people who would drive hundreds of kilometres from neighbouring towns.
As many of the calls were from the Primary schools, Margaret did several tours of the diocese (having borrowed a car from the diocese) providing parenting programs in every school, which gave her the opportunity to meet the priests and principals and to discuss what could be possible.
As many of the concerns were about children struggling with deaths or illness in the family, Margaret, aware she could not be constantly responding to calls from all over the diocese, decided to see if she could train volunteers to provide small group programs such as ‘Rainbows’ or ‘Seasons for Growth’ directed at children dealing with loss through separation, divorce or death. However, resources were needed for this, and there was no money.
At the same time, Margaret was very aware that CentaCare could not grow as a business if the phone was left unattended while she was away or providing counselling. A secretary was needed … but she still only had the school desk and the electric typewriter! Early in 1997 through a Loreto connection, Margaret was introduced to a Foundation that funded capital purchases to be used to assist rural youth. Margaret sent a proposal seeking funds to purchase workbooks and other materials for the ‘Rainbows’ program, and also a desk, chair, filing cabinet and computer for a secretary.
Later in the year, she approached the Bishop, about employing a secretary – even on a part time basis. With his agreement, an advertisement was placed in the paper, and by the closing date a letter had arrived informing her that the Foundation had agreed to make a donation of $10,000! This was the first sign of many over the years, that there was Someone beyond us very clearly looking after us, and wanting a CentaCare for the people of the diocese.
From this point, CentaCare began to grow. We had the secretary well equipped with furniture and computer, the diocese lent us moneys to purchase a number of vehicles (which we paid back within the year), and we began providing our first funded services – first Financial Counselling and a youth program in Bourke (thanks to the assistance of CentaCare Sydney), then with funding from the Catholic Education Office, School Counselling in about 14 schools on the eastern side of the diocese, then funding from NSW Heath for the Aboriginal Family Health Strategy.
We also benefited from donations of furniture from Forbes TAFE which assisted us fitting out offices in Forbes, Bourke and Narromine. Our growth continued as a result of much tender writing and hard work establishing policies and practices expected of a reputable organisation, and a culture of generosity that will do whatever it takes to assist another, and which rejoices in witnessing life breaking through in another.
A key principle from the beginning was that CentaCare would provide services to all members of communities in the Diocese, including Aboriginal communities, and to do this, wherever possible, Aboriginal people would be employed and supported to provide culturally sensitive services to their communities.
We gradually gained a reputation with our funding bodies and other supporters for our accountability, innovative services, grass roots knowledge of rural issues, and work with and for Aboriginal communities. The fact that many branches house a diverse range of services has led to us being able to provide holistic, integrated support to participants – a ‘one-stop-shop’ model that is able to shepherd the participant between services, as opposed to un-coordinated service where they are required to tell their story over and over again.
Another key learning has been the value of taking a ‘facilitator’ role within a community to assist greater collaboration and co-ordination of services and initiatives so all are working towards a shared goal.
In May 2009 we had a team of 55, then in partnership with CatholicCare Sydney, we were successful with a tender to provide employment services across a large span of western NSW and this plus growth in other services led to a significant expansion. In May 2011, CentaCare had a team of 140 – and for most, the inspiration is the mission and vision of CentaCare – truly taken to heart.
In May 2011, Margaret handed over to Phil Lawler who is the current CEO.