Geraldine Lewis
Geraldine Lewis

Finding a place to stay connected

IN THE lead up to her branch's relocation from Maclean to Grafton, Australian Unity's Aboriginal Home Care (AHC) Community Access Coordinator Geraldine Lewis (nee Daley) spent ANZAC DAY morning in what she describes as quite a surreal way.

"I was standing at the end of my driveway out in the middle of the bush, in my ANZAC DAY best, me and my husband all on our lonesome. He played The Last Post over his mobile phone!"

Geraldine says it was important for her family to keep the tradition. "We can't see our neighbours so we don't know if there was anyone else out there, but we didn't feel alone so there must have been some of our mob out there doing the same thing."

There are a lot of things on the horizon for Geraldine that involve doing things differently, and her branch's relocation is definitely the biggest change. She talks about the move as if it feels like Aboriginal Home Care's (AHC) Northern Branch team is coming home.

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"I was born and bred in Grafton, and the building our branch is moving into is actually my old high school! This place holds so many important memories for me," says Geraldine.

Geraldine, who identifies with and celebrates both her Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr heritage, is one person who truly understands the importance of achieving a sense of belonging.

The meaning of the word 'place' in Indigenous culture is very unique, complex and deep. Place is the most essential tool for learning about Indigenous family history, and personal identity. Both are closely tried to where ancestors worked, lived and travelled. Community connectedness is a key factor to Aboriginal Home Care's success, Geraldine explains. "It's all about word of mouth in small communities."

AHC's Northern Branch are relocating to Gurehlgam, home to a number of fellow Aboriginal community support services focusing on family and domestic violence prevention, homelessness, as well as local arts and culture programs.

"It's a great meeting place", says Geraldine, "they've got a veggie garden, they've got conference rooms where we'll be able to hold events once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted - it's a very welcoming place".

When asked to capture in a nutshell what makes Grafton the right 'place' for the AHC Northern team to operate from, Geraldine is quick to respond.

"Our new branch location will be a place where customers and community members feel comfortable and connected," she says.

Geraldine believes it's vital to be situated in a pre-existing community support network where they can build, maintain and expand on relationships.

"There's lots of 'satellite towns'/small townships where our customers are, situated all along the coast, but Grafton is the main hub. When our branch reopens in Grafton it will be … their own place to come, where they're surrounded by their own mob," she says.

Geraldine says her own family connections are key to being able to engage the community in her area.

"When I go out to places surrounding Grafton especially remote areas, the first thing they'll ask is "who's your mob?". When I mention I'm a Daley they instantly recognise our family's connection to the area and say "oh, I know you," says Geraldine.

This is little surprise, given that her family includes a few well-known community figures, including one country music-loving cousin.

"No, you can't mention Troy!" Geraldine laughs, "Oh look, I'm just so proud of what he's done. We all are".

"It's my time to give back to the place I came from", says Geraldine of her opportunity to work with the people of Grafton, "I would say Aboriginal Home Care, by connecting with customers in Grafton, are going to be a resource, whether through our Yarn Ups or our annual Gatherings, or being a place in the community where they can come in and have a chat. It's a place to access information, and other Indigenous services that are located in the building."

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the move is currently on hold, which has understandably impacted the work Geraldine and her team do, and forced a shift in priorities.

"We work together with the community in the Grafton area as well as more remote communities, but because of the coronavirus situation a lot of the community work we do has come to a stop." Geraldine concedes the most important community work to do right now is to "protect vulnerable community members from infection.

"Some customers I've spoken to during the outbreak are fine, but they're scared naturally."

But she adds they're very open about their concerns which has helped her and her team to respond to their needs.

"I had a lady talk to me yesterday, and she said, "Geri, I just want to ask you this question. How safe are the care workers? Are they really safe to come to my home?" I assured her I believe they are, they're following strict guidelines, they're using their PPE gear when they need to, they're reporting if any incidents of unwellness. They do have special care duties, which involves being very close to our customers, but they're using masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, social distancing where possible, you name it."

Some clients don't want to go shopping with care workers while they're self-isolating, which is a big part of the services Aboriginal Home Care provides. Then one day, one of Geraldine's customers came up with an idea.

"She asked if she could leave her shopping list and some money by the door so her care worker can still do her shopping while keeping herself isolated," says Geraldine.

This one simple idea has led to new ways AHC care workers can help their customers in new ways during this time.

"Our customers are thinking outside the box, and we're listening and taking action. We're doing whatever it takes to keep the community safe. We're doing our best to look after them as best we can while they self-isolate. Because if I or my workers come into contact with the virus and then walk into a remote area, it could potentially devastate an entire vulnerable community … people are so precious and valuable. I don't want to do that.

"Once we get over the coronavirus hurdle, we'll be looking at what we can offer our clients, helping new customers come on board, hosting Yarn Ups and Gatherings", Geraldine says. But forming community partnerships is the priority. It's all about looking after our mob," she says.