In January this year Jeff Downie and his partner Rita left Canberra and moved north for the warmth and the lifestyle.
Having spent most of his working life as a manager in senior positions in the banking and insurance industries, Jeff was looking forward to a change.
He and Rita settled comfortably in Lake Cathie, engaging in a range of healthy pursuits.
Retirement was a long-awaited pleasure but Jeff felt he wanted to “give back” to the community, and he had the time to do so.
“I looked around at volunteering options and settled on St Vincent de Paul, which has a fantastic reputation and does some terrific work with those less fortunate than ourselves,” he said.
“While our local Vinnies op-shops also do great work, I didn’t see myself helping out in retail so I turned my attention to our conferences, which are the social support services where people doing it tough can find some assistance.”
Jeff was soon welcomed into the fold at the St Matthew’s Conference in Laurieton, finding that “being on the front lines was an incredible eye-opener.”
“I’m not naive enough to think most people are prospering, despite this being a great place to live,” he said.
“But I was blown away by how many people are in real need of financial help as well as counselling on how they might better manage their limited incomes.”
He notes that loneliness is another common problem that society should do more address.
“So many people have no one to turn to for personal support when they face problems in their lives. Just having someone with a friendly ear can make all the difference to our well-being,” he said.
Recently Jeff was made president of Vinnies Hastings region, made up of Port Macquarie, Laurieton, Wauchope, Lake Cathie and Kempsey.
The five Hastings Conferences saw 1961 people last year, with each person or family making an average of nearly three visits.
Around 95 per cent were on benefits, with 35 per cent on the youth Newstart allowance that is widely seen as inadequate.
Some 30 per cent were over 50 years, mostly without savings or super, living week to week.
“Take Laurieton, which has a population of around 2000,” Jeff ssaid.
“This Conference recorded over 900 visitations last year, from 232 people - that’s one-in-ten residents seeking help.”
Conference staff, all of them volunteers like Jeff, assess people’s needs and offer what help and advice they can.
This can include emergency food parcels, food vouchers for local stores, assistance with power bills (Vinnies administers the NSW Government’s energy subsidy scheme), support with fuel costs to get to medical or job appointments, and help with school expenses such as uniforms or sports fees.
“Electricity and food costs are the main concern, followed by the high cost and the lack of rental accommodation, although we’re not able to do much about that except provide general advice,” he said.
What surprises Jeff most is the extent to which poverty is hidden in modern society, including homelessness.
“We have a real cross-section, from single parents to older women, who tell us they’re sleeping in their cars, or couch surfing in already crowded households,” he said.
“People don’t have to be sleeping rough in the outdoors to be classed as homeless.
“This hidden homelessness is a massive problem, and getting worse. Living like this leaves people exposed to violence and exploitation.
“It makes is very difficult for children to access a continuing education, and have a proper start in life.”
Jeff adds that Vinnies is considered a lay Catholic organisation, and there is no expectation that people seeking help or those working in Conferences or shops should be Catholic.
“I’m what one colleague called a relaxed Catholic,” he laughed.
“But we welcome people of any persuasion to consider joining us in our work. The main belief is that anyone doing it tough can benefit from a hand-up and that’s what we aim to provide.”
To inquire about working with Vinnies please call Greg Ryan on 0447 123 109