August 31, 2013
TEN years ago I went to a community development conference in the city, the sort of gathering where thousands of anonymous delegates sit listening to famous guest speakers and hope humbly for just a few new ideas.
At one point, the chairperson up on the stage attempted a discussion with the masses below. The microphone passed to a few reckless individuals whose comments tailed off limply as their courage failed. Then came another voice: steady, articulate, unfazed. It was Wonthaggi’s Jan Bourne, going in to bat on the real issues.
This is Jan’s 11th year at Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre at Mitchell House. Neighbourhood houses at their best, she says, are vibrant, dynamic places where people can be creative, express themselves and make a contribution. A quick check of ‘The Grapevine’, the house newsletter, confirms there are well over 40 courses, workshops and shared learning experiences on offer throughout August.
She cites the example of a recently arrived Dutch migrant who called in to ask if they would like him to weed the house’s courtyard. Permission given, he confessed to liking to work with his hands and was introduced to the men’s shed. Alongside migrants from Denmark, China, Wales and India, he attended a Welcome to our Town morning tea where he and his wife met a couple who have since become friends. Now he has started up a stamp collecting club at the house as a facilitator for LearnShare, a program underpinned by the belief that everyone has something to share.
As Mitchell House facilitator, this is Jan’s job, she says: linking people and opportunities. But there’s much more. In an organisation where everyone is a volunteer, and volunteers make everything happen, “you have to be able to share your vision that life is good, people are great and good things can happen when people come together ... like electrical sparks”.
It’s not going to work all the time, she concedes. “It’s important not to ask more than people can give. If an idea doesn’t get up, it’s okay; this place is experimental. The idea is fabulous but it’s just not the right time.”
There is one undeviating expectation. “We want volunteers to be loyal: loyal to the house philosophy and to each other.” And if she’s let down? “Then you have to talk.”
In the instance of a member of the community coming into the Neighbourhood Centre and acting in a threatening or unacceptable way, you ask what the problem is. You deal with the situation. At worst, you ask the person to leave.”
She is absolutely clear on this point. “I have a duty of care to everyone in this house. It’s a centre for everybody.”
Then she returns to the fundamental principle which drives her work. “How I am is ... I feel like everyone here is a gatekeeper of the original vision of ‘community’ for the centre. If you have a positive expectation, in most instances people will step up. Our attitude is that people are great unless proven otherwise.”
Jan tells the story of the break-ins. They had a period when thieves, hidden from view, were regularly breaking in through the back door. The centre put up a sign on the door that read: “PLEASE DON’T BREAK IN. NO MONEY IS KEPT HERE. IF YOU BREAK IN WE HAVE TO FIND MONEY WE DON’T HAVE TO FIX WHAT YOU BREAK. WHAT YOU CAN DO IS COME THOUGH THE FRONT DOOR AND ASK HOW WE CAN HELP.”
Since then, no break-ins. “It might just be a coincidence ...” she says, and shrugs.
She admits to occasional disappointments. “But if things don’t work, you can’t take things personally. It’s important not to feel responsible for everything.” She has to work at this constantly, she says. She wants everything to work.
Her jobs buoys her, keeps her going, reinvigorates her. But it can get her into trouble. The work eats into her private life. “I put the hours in because I want to see things happen,” she says. Shire-wide projects, such as setting up eight community kitchens, are a big undertaking for a neighbourhood house. The Gung Ho Festivals were huge. “Sometimes the committee will rope me in; we have to come back to core business.”
There are other costs. She’s exhausted at night. There’s not a lot of personal space. Work in which the boundaries between the professional and private are easily blurred can affect your family time.
Some years ago Taranto Glass and the Workmen’s Hotel shared sponsorship of 30 places at the Workmen’s Christmas Day lunch for people who would otherwise be on their own on the day. Christmas spirit in action. In the second year, buoyed by the pure logic of the occasion, brimming over with goodwill, Jan booked in her family. She knew her daughters were confident young people, able to fit in the shoes of people who were different from themselves. The family duly sat through the event. The drive home was a frosty one. It might have been Christmas, her daughters told her, but they hadn’t had their Christmas! She didn’t do it again.
“I was surprised and a bit disappointed,” Jan recalls. “And at the same time, I felt I’d let them down.”
These tensions are part of the price paid for the job she loves. “It’s hard to keep everyone happy.” She’s grateful her husband, Duncan Cowley, understands and appreciates the social value of her work. “It’s just what I do. I’ve found a vocation that is right for me.”
Wonthaggi neighbourhood Centre, Mitchell House, 6 Murray Street, Wonthaggi, Ph 5672 3731, firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 1, 2013
My thanks to Gill Heal for espousing Jan Bourne's role as the co-ordinator of the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre. I am fortunate to volunteer alongside Jan and have great respect for her ability in welcoming all people to the centre. She has a natural ability to make everyone feel welcome and connected, no matter how low her energy levels may be!
If anyone is interested in how neighbourhood centres have come about, I can recommend the book Cups with no Handles, by local author Carolyn Landon. A wonderful, heartfelt read and it prompted me to go and join this important link within our community.
Vilya Congreave, Wonthaggi