There was a real buzz of genuine altruism at the Macksville Ex-Services Club last night as a vast cross-section of the community gathered to talk about levelling the playing field for vulnerable children.
In the audience at the Royal Far West and Fairfax-hosted community discussion were teachers and therapeutic specialists, philanthropists, drug and alcohol and mental health counselors, volunteer fundraisers, op shop staff, and early childcare workers – all equally engaged in addressing the developmental issues that are quite often hidden in our Valley.
WATCH: Fairfax’s Brad Cooper introduces the panel
Royal Far West CEO Lindsay Cane gave a harrowing overview of the statistics on entrenched poverty and vulnerability of children in rural, regional and remote Australia.
“Up to 42 percent of children in rural, remote and regional areas get to school and can’t speak, can’t pick up a pencil, can’t sit still for five minutes, can’t play in a playground because of oversexualisation, or are violent because of experienced trauma,” she said.
“And if rural Australia is not well, then the nation is not well.”
She said that often, due to geographical isolation and insufficient services (among other factors), children miss being screened for developmental issues like blindness, hearing loss, sensory overload, or even major episodic depression, until they’re already attending school – and then it is often too late to fix problems.
“If we can catch them in the 3-5 age bracket, then we’ve given them a chance while their little minds are still plasticky and mouldable,” she said.
“And we give them a chance to be resilient in their own right.
“The evidence is clear and compelling that vulnerable kids almost certainly make up the majority of people in the mental health and juvenile justice systems.”
Jenny Zirkler used to be the executive officer of nursing at the Macksville Hospital and in that role, she says she became increasingly concerned about the kids in the Valley who weren’t coming in to access services and so championed Royal Far West’s presence here through fundraising arm, ‘ValleyCat’.
WATCH: Jenny Zirkler explains how ValleyCat came about
As one member of the audience quite rightly pointed out during the forum last night, the Nambucca has intergenerational poverty: parents “don’t know what they just don’t know.”
Last year ValleyCat volunteers managed to fundraise over $15,000 for the Nambucca’s most vulnerable through a variety of activities including a charity bike ride, curry night and garage sales etc.
WATCH: Rod Edwards talk fundraising
“We started ValleyCat because we realised this needs to be a partnership, and the community here needs to have some skin in the game,” panelist and ValleyCat member Rod Edwards said.
“Yes, the ‘skin in the game’ is important to us too, because then the community feels they have ownership over the process rather than a ‘fly-in-fly-out’ operator,” Ms Cane replied.
Q and A session
Questions from the audience came thick and fast with many wondering how Royal Far West support will proceed after its successful ‘Telecare’ pilot trial in Valley schools – where metropolitan specialists helped to diagnose vulnerability through a televised conference call.
And there were several local speech pathologists and occupational therapists who questioned where the consultation and collaboration had been with local allied health professionals.
Lindsay Cane responded by saying that the next stage for Royal Far West was to engage preschools, and to continue making noise to advance cross-agency and cross-government solutions.
“Telecare services are very appropriate for kids from five on, but we’ve found that preschool-age kids are not ready enough,” she said.
“We need more in-community capacity building in preschools.
“And I just want to point out that we see our role as not to be anywhere where there are services already – we want to fill gaps in the community.
“Your Local Health District here has invited us to be working with them over the next three years.”
Rod Edwards added that today the ValleyCat team would be taking its research into a meeting with Royal Far West and suggesting that the best way forward in the Valley was to utilise local and private professionals, as well as the Telecare program.
For more information about Royal Far West visit www.royalfarwest.org.au