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Overcoming tyranny of distance in Families Week

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Supporting families scattered across nearly one million square kilometres, Centacare Catholic Country SA (CCCSA) is used to overcoming great distances, however COVID-19 restrictions have called for creative ways to keep people connected during National Families Week.

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One of the biggest events on its calendar, the Whyalla team knew that while planned activities for Families Week (starting on Monday) had to be cancelled, ‘the show had to go on’ in some form. Thinking outside the square the team has created a virtual event and developed a resource pack with in excess of 20 activities to engage families in ‘quality connected time’.

“It was difficult at first to think about how we could keep supporting families and keep providing services, especially those who are already isolated and vulnerable,” said CCCSA’s Whyalla manager Michele Wachla.

“It has been a valuable learning experience to think differently about service delivery and how to connect with people, with the opportunity now to maybe maintain some of what we are doing into the future, beyond the pandemic.”

CCCSA covers the far north of South Australia, including some areas of the APY Lands, the outback, the expanse of the Eyre Peninsula and Far West Coast. It supports hundreds of vulnerable families who are isolated by geographical and social distance, including many from Aboriginal communities. In Whyalla, clients come from backgrounds ranging from low socio-economic who have experienced generations of unemployment, through to high income earners.

Families Week activities are a way to cut through the divide and focus on families being connected within themselves and others in the community.

“We work with some of the most vulnerable and at risk families,” Ms Wachla explained.

“Families Week is probably one of our bigger events, along with NAIDOC Week…and we celebrate usually in local locations with quite significant events – parties in the park, movie nights, we’ve hosted events at the local recreation centre.”

This year families have instead registered to receive a resource pack containing activities ranging from growing seedlings, chalk drawing, charades, origami, cooking recipes and even putting together a COVID-19 time capsule. They will be encouraged to share the activities they are enjoying via posts on social media, with prizes for participation. Families who do not have digital resources will also receive a pack and be encouraged to participate.

Chief executive office of CCCSA, Dr Jen Cleary said she was extremely proud of the staff and how they had “stepped up” to continue supporting country communities during the coronavirus restrictions.

“Travelling five or six hours and beyond is often in a day’s work for our staff, however the idea of ‘social distance’ is definitely a new take on that and finding ways to continue service delivery certainly required creative and innovative approaches,” she said.

“Coming from a place of very strong values and as a value based organisation, we live and die by the principles of Catholic social teaching. As an embedded organisation all of our people work where they live and live where they work… so there is no separation of ‘us and them’; it’s all ‘us’.

“Our strong social networks mean that there is a greater opportunity to make sure as few people as possible slip through the cracks.”

Dr Cleary said because of the distance between some of CCCSA’s offices they had always used technology to keep in contact so telephone and Zoom meetings now were nothing new. However, once restrictions were lifted it would be important to resume meeting with families in person as much as possible.

“We hope never to lose that genuine face to face contact, providing wraparound support for families because they already are so isolated,” she explained.

“But in the future there may well be a focus on additional supports for families and trying to close that digital divide – because there definitely is one. That will possibly be a fundraising focus for us, for those without the technology are undoubtedly those who are most isolated in circumstances like this.”

CCCSA’s Families Week celebrations will run from May 18 to 22.

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