School was out for summer
Reaching out to a 'hidden population'
By Chris Lindsay
Mary MacKillop Out-reach caters to "a hidden population", says manager Bob Nelson.
"They started turning up at Vinnies seeking basic help such as food and clothes and we knew there was a bigger problem out there."
"They" are the mentally ill who found themselves on the street when the State Government closed down its mental hospitals and sold them as prime real estate.
Mary MacKillop Outreach started visiting boarding houses to work with them.
Today it looks after about 150 mentally ill people, with projects such as arts and crafts, fitness groups, bus trips, excursions to watch films, working with computers and a woodwork group known as the Men's Shed.
This project, in particular, demonstrates to these men "that the community is a good place to be, that friendships are there for the making", says Bob.
"It shows people who have had something of an uphill battle in life that they can make it with a bit of help."
The Men's Shed is in action on Thursdays and Fridays at the Mary MacKillop Outreach centre in the old Lewisham Hospital site, which is also the headquarters of the St Vincent de Paul Society, which supports the centre.
Bob and his woodwork co-ordinator, Gary Greinke, are helped in this project by volunteers, most of whom are retired men.
"For the volunteers it provides some social contact with their mates, and a place to make a meaningful contribution," says Bob. "And that is essential for most people.
"It demonstrates that retirement can be a most important part of life. Often men get 'put out to pasture'; they haven't always built up close social contacts like women."
About 20 volunteers are involved in the Men's Shed at present, working with 10 mentally ill participants.
Some participants are referred to the project; others come from contacts made during outreach activities.
The Department of Veteran's Affairs, which has also been looking to provide social opportunities for retired men with time on their hands, now supports the project.
The Men's Shed is in its second year. One of its early jobs was to build planter boxes for Ashfield Council's street beautification program.
Volunteers and participants also build bed bases to go with new mattresses purchased by St Vincents, plus furniture such as tables and chairs. The last order - for
50 bed bases - took a month or so to make.
The planter beds are also made for Lewisham Nursing Home, St Joan of Arc Hostel at Haberfield and Willows Nursing Home at Ashfield.
These bring in some revenue, but not enough to cover costs, so the outreach centre still relies on donations.
Marrickville Council is about to provide the project with more volunteers as it joins in the program.
Marrickville RSL has made a donation of $10,000.
"The Ashfield Catholic Club has been a huge benefactor," says Bob.
"I would go to them if I had a problem; they would listen to me and then give me money to fix it or expand the service," says Bob. "They have been wonderful."
The wood comes from pine packing cases used to import plate glass and is donated by an importer who previously had to pay $150 a time to have it taken to the tip.
The importer also donates some glass offcuts to be used in furniture such as cabinets.
"Recycling is important to us," says Bob. "We make use of everything."
There have also been donations of paint from Hoy Paints at Collaroy.
The volunteer woodworkers are trained in a three tier program; beginners, intermediate and advanced.
"They learn basic woodwork skills, such as the use of portable power tools, and then progress to industrial-sized machinery," says Bob. "Each individual is then assessed as to his competency.
"All do occupational health and safety training, which is essential, and some have done first aid and fire safety.
"When I started this my mates donated some tools and equipment, and we got some second-hand stuff.
"Now we have a full time instructor in Gary Greinke and the project is growing."
Bob said the outreach tries "to offer as much variety as possible".
More volunteers are needed, though, "to help with the arts and crafts, gardening, cooking - even bus driving".