Community project gives us back our voice

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By Amorous Day

 

After years of being a sex worker, becoming a habitual drug user and dealing with alcoholism, my life took a turn for the worse and I was incarcerated for a crime I committed when I was drunk. When I came out of jail, my self-esteem was extremely low and my public persona was shy and resentful, probably from still holding on to a lot of shame. My social worker hooked me up with the Our Voices Leadership Program.

I was wrapped to get my head around some light schoolwork again and be part of something that was positive in the community. Made up of a small group of about 6 of us, a more diverse group we could not be. We established some guidelines right off the bat to create a respectful and safe environment.

The 10 week course was run by Robyn Szechtman and Deb McIntosh – two amazingly strong and entertaining women with loads of compassion and community spirit, and Bianca Hatfield who had done the previous Our Voices and excelled so well she was asked to help them facilitate this time round. Things the program covered were:

  • Preparing a speech – the structure
  • Body language – posture, expressions, gestures and eye contact
  • Communication styles and managing conflict
  • Critical evaluation of each others’ presentations
  • Managing nerves, tension and preparing for presentations

The Our Voices program recently morphed into Voices of the South Side (VoSS) with the help of a two-year federal grant. It’s a program for people who live in social or public housing in the City of Port Phillip to be a part of creative projects that showcase their communities and connect them to new networks and activities. The core of the program is still the community leadership course now known as the “Speaking Out” course.

Recently I was invited to the very first graduation of VoSS, which is lead by the Port Melbourne Neighborhood Centre and partners with Inner South Community Health, Port Phillip Community Group and Southport Housing. I recognized familiar faces and felt the same anticipation in the air as when I had graduated with my group at the beginning of the year.

Each participant has to give a 3-minute speech to the audience in order to graduate and anxiety levels are high. My speech was on life lessons learnt from TV shows and past speeches range from serious issues such as legalisation of heroin to the more whimsical Fairies Live at the bottom of my garden.

Former participant and Master of Ceremonies Mark Towler openly shared some of the barriers he faced at a point in his life. He reminded us all about the impact of community participation and inclusion in individual lives and how projects like these can make a difference – a drop in a lake which creates a ripple effect that enriches the lives of all involved.

Bianca Hatfield, now studying Mental Health and Community Services is part of the VoSS team in a mentor, peer facilitator and student capacity. She shared about just how much this program helped on her own long journey overcoming debilitating shyness.

I spoke with the participants individually to get some feedback on the course. Some found it a real challenge. They hadn’t done anything in an educational sense in quite some time and the group environment can be a bit daunting.  But this was overcome by the resulting sense of achievement after they chose to stick with it.

The sense of community was greatly enjoyed by those who were experiencing unhealthy habits such as isolating and becoming housebound providing incentive to get out and break the routine. Meeting new people and “getting back into the community” was a positive experience shared by all.

Participants talked about coming out of their shells, of being challenged and overcoming self-doubt. They now stand a little taller and have learnt about themselves in the process. It has increased their confidence and for some, reinforced the importance of their community involvement in various volunteer roles.

Overall, Port Melbourne Neighborhood Centre’s Voices of the South seems to have been an enriching, eye opening and empowering journey for those involved. Thanks to Robyn and Deb’s dedication, a fresh group of students has walked away with a sense of achievement, a reignited desire to be part of the community and the tools to step out into the world with newfound strength.

 

If you would like more information on the program, Robyn can be contacted at robyn@pmnc.org.au or on 9645 1476.

 

 

 

 

 

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