When Cathy Beaton was first approached about the role of State president of the St Vincent de Paul Society, her initial thought was that she didn’t “fit the mould” because she was “noisy, loud and opinionated”.
But a little voice told her that maybe she might just be able to make a difference and she agreed to be nominated. In typical Cathy Beaton style, she pulled together a “mini vision” for what she thought Vinnies needed.
“It was around strategy – really solid, strategic planning,” she said. “Good strategy leads to good process, leads to good implementation and delivery and that means better service to the people that need us.”
There is no doubting Cathy’s qualifications for the job; her impressive CV includes sitting on a number of boards including Regional Development Australia and a wealth of experience in community and economic development. Her exceptional organisational skills helped her to undertake legal studies in Adelaide while living in the Riverland, which involved managing countless road trips for lectures and to spend time with her three adult children.
Nor is there any question of her strong Catholic faith. Raised in Lucindale, where her mother was the religious instruction co-ordinator, she remembers having to bless herself with holy water in the kitchen during Lent and saying the rosary every night. Her parents were converts and took their religion very seriously but Cathy wasn’t satisfied with simply being told what to believe. In her twenties she did her own “research” and studied catechism with her husband David, a convert, who was baptised at the same time as their daughter Emily.
“I wouldn’t do anything unless it resonated with my heart in some way – I was like that at school too,” said Cathy. “So I thought perhaps we should just look at it a bit more because there must be something in it, millions of people keep going with it.
“And we thought if we’re going to consciously bring our kids up as Catholics we need to know about it ourselves.”
As a young mum living in the sparsely populated Mallee, Cathy and David were all too conscious of the fact that if the Beaton family didn’t go to Mass at Paruna, the church would be half empty. But it wasn’t just about being part of a community, she also had a very firm belief that the Eucharist was what sustained her.
“I actually thought, even then, before all the terribleness of the Church, it doesn’t matter who’s leading us, there is so much good that can come out of it,” she said.
“It’s a faith of love – if you can feed off of that, why wouldn’t you?”
Cathy became involved in Vinnies in the Riverland eight years ago. Before that she was “on the periphery” while David took a more active role as president of Frederic Ozanam Housing and the Dulwich Burnside and Berri conferences.
“I joined the Berri conference and was really surprised at the need; it can be under your nose and you just don’t realise it until you become involved,” she said.
While the conference members were not young Cathy said they were “energetic, positive and passionate”.
One of her motivations for taking on the presidency was the desire to represent country regions which don’t have the same level of services as the city.
She has witnessed this first hand in the Riverland where she does home visitations. “The problems are exacerbated because we don’t have the same levels of emergency housing, people are living on the river, there is a consistent cohort of homeless,” she said.
“At the next level there are people not being able to pay their utilities –it’s amazing how busy we are when kids go back to school in January and February and they can’t afford uniforms…those basic day to day things.
“So Vinnies helps fill the gap.”
Cathy is passionate about increasing awareness of the breadth of the organisation’s work, particularly the assistance provided to people in their own homes.
She said that she “loves” visiting people and having the opportunity of meeting them in their own environment. “For example, you can see if they’ve got children and need extra assistance,” she explained.
There was also something “very special” about a person asking for help. “There’s an honesty and transparency that you don’t get to witness with most people, they are very open and honest about their issues and how they got to where they are at as they know they will not be judged…the one thing about me is that I love keeping things real and that is just the real sense of a person, they’re asking another person to help them.”
Cathy’s involvement in Vinnies increased after attending the Vincentian and Values Centred Leadership Program in 2015, resulting in an invitation to nominate to be regional president of Riverland/Yorke, which includes sitting on the State Council.
Her plan is to spend three days of the working week in the city and four in the Riverland where David is chief executive of the Berri Barmera Council. She has no qualms about the travelling: “I get a brain list and I work through that.”
Acknowledging the challenge of attracting younger people to the organisation, she sees social justice and advocacy as a priority.
“People aren’t necessarily interested in institutions but they are interested in causes so we need to get the cause out there and get support for that, while acknowledging then how fortunate we are with the fantastic volunteers and staff that we currently have,” she said.
“You have to be clear on your cause, clear on your message while remaining true to the mission and values of the Society.”