With Open Hearts

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A Guide to Meaningful Belonging

Community Stories and Ideas from Uniting Ability Links

A Guide to Meaningful Belonging — Community Stories and Ideas from Uniting Ability Links

| Contents | Welcome – Ric Bless………………………………………………… 5

Learning #4 – Imagine new stuff together…… 50

Community Perspective – Kylie Jeffress…………… 6

Between the pages………………………………………………… 54

Foreword – Anita Le Lay………………………………………… 7

The apprentice………………………………………………………… 57

Story Gatherer’s Notes – Moya Sayer-Jones……… 8

Hey, watch me go! …………………………………………………… 58

The Link and Grow Model……………………………………… 9

Learning #5 – Use who and what you both know………………………………………………………………… 62

Learning #1 – See the person…………………………… 10 Serendipity……………………………………………………………… 15 I hit the jackpot………………………………………………………… 19 A time to learn………………………………………………………… 23 Learning #2 – Adapt to the person………………… 24

The fabulous Ms Leah and her big ideas………… 66 Lower your fences, lengthen your tables…………… 69 Easy Rider………………………………………………………………… 72 The Latte Ladies …………………………………………………… 73

Challenge accepted ……………………………………………… 31

FAQs………………………………………………………………………… 74

Guess what Peter’s wearing to dinner………………… 33

Boundaries, safety and self-care………………………… 75

More fish in the sea………………………………………………… 34

Resource links………………………………………………………… 76

Not colour by numbers…………………………………………… 37

The 5 ways to better connections……………………… 77

Learning #3 – Focus on them…………………………… 38

Our fabulous linkers……………………………………………… 78

A timely conversation…………………………………………… 42

Acknowledgments – Kat Lindberg…………………… 80

See you soon, Miss…………………………………………………… 45

Contacts…………………………………………………………………… 81

More than the two of us ………………………………………… 48

isbn 978-0-646-80135-3

Concept, strategy, design and production: Only Human Stories www.onlyhuman.com.au Moya Sayer-Jones (Lead); Clive Jones (Design); Celine Massa; Heidi Robins Photography: © Dean Golja Cartoon drawings: © Tennyson Nobel Printed in Australia by The Flagstaff Group


| Welcome |


niting Ability Links program has turned 5. What better way to celebrate our years of working with communities and continue our impact than by sharing the stories of what we have learnt, seen and been inspired by?

thanks for teaching us so much. We hope these stories and ideas inspire all “natural linkers” in our communities to continue their work in believing in the potential of others. Because the truth is, we all need linkers. Who exists in your world who you might call your “natural linker”? (A person you can trust to help you, help yourself in the next step in your growth?)

The Ability Links NSW program was first set up in July 2014. It was created to support people with a disability to develop their potential and offered a unique way of working, outside of the traditional disability service system. The linkers themselves were a unique group too. They represented the diversity of our community including people with their own lived experiences of disability or exclusion.

What would a world of linkers look like?

Over the next 5 years of working in local communities, linkers learnt what worked best. They saw remarkable benefits and possibilities emerge that had never emerged before. And they were able to adapt existing ideas and practices to make way for more flexible, connected and person-led ways of doing.

That’s a community we all deserve to be a part of.

In With Open Hearts, you will read the stories of the amazing people we have worked with and of what can happen when we believe in the potential of every person. The book is essentially a gift back to community with our

Imagine your community is filled with “natural linkers” – there would always be someone who sees you as a whole person and sees you without judgement; someone who will adapt to who you are and inspire you to find your own ability and power.

Ric Bless Uniting Ability Links Program Manager


| Community Perspective |


am a writer and this year, I will see my first children’s books published. I have always been a believer in the power of stories to share insight and evoke inspiration. Some stories even encourage readers to draw on their own creativity – to do something they may never have done before. This was what happened to me when I read Uniting Ability Link’s first collection of stories, With Open Arms. This second book also tells the stories of people in our community who draw strength to go beyond their label and achieve what they truly desire to do. The stories capture the relationship between the person and their linker, how they work with an idea to achieve a new vision that they never thought would be possible. It captures the sense of community and shows that good things can happen and they happen through people. The passions and visions that each one of us has inside, along with our creativity and accomplishments, bind us together as human beings. These essential things show there is no difference between us. Linkers are a bridge for the individual to the community. I see in these stories the


tremendous empathy, compassion and understanding of the linkers and their unique skills in bringing out the full potentials of individuals. I also see and appreciate the bravery of those individuals who for whatever reason have been previously isolated – and their courage to reach out and be embraced by the community. I hope you will read this collection and use it in your relationships with people. It’s a lasting keepsake and an example of true stories, true people and the tapestry of our lives. My thanks go to linker Kem, whom bought me out of my own shadows into the light of community. When I think of linkers “I think to myself… what a wonderful world”.

Kylie Jeffress Read Kylie’s own story on page 54

| Foreword |


am so very proud and privileged to be able to write this foreword for our second book of stories, With Open Hearts. Five years into this unique program, the impact on people’s lives continues to be profound and sustaining. It’s easy to talk about person-centredness, inclusion and capacity building but it’s much harder to actually live it, as our linkers have done. They connect in a way that is light-touch, non-prescriptive and truly empowering for the people and communities that we support. Our linkers work without boundaries, without the pressures of labels or time, without the need to satisfy a service system’s expectations of what should be delivered. Linkers “see” people; they listen; they adapt. They’re able to build trust and respect, to support people in culturally appropriate ways, and to truly work in community and with community. Our linkers connect with, and welcome people with a disability, exactly as they are. These stories cover a time when we have seen the NDIS in NSW fully transition. For people with a disability, and their families and friends, it’s fair to say that this has been a challenging time. For people eligible for the NDIS, our linkers provided valuable support. For people ineligible for the NDIS, Ability Links continues to be critical in delivering a continuum of support where hurdles and unknowns still exist. Our linkers can address gaps and ensure that people don’t fall through them.

In line with our purpose of “inspiring individuals, enlivening communities and confronting injustice”, Uniting is very proud to deliver Ability Links in NSW. We congratulate NSW Family and Community Services for recognising the need to fund this service as a critical mechanism for supporting people with a disability, their families and communities they live in. We hope that policy makers and governments at all levels, may continue to see the relevance of the Ability Links model in addressing social disadvantage and vulnerability: especially its relevance in the future across a range of different service settings. If belonging is the inherent nature of humans to connect with others, then being appreciated by others is key to belonging. Our linker wisdom on page 11 really sums it up… “Most of the people I speak to just want a greater sense of purpose. They want to use their time in a meaningful way. They want to do things where they give back to their community or where they’re using a skill or being useful in some way. They want to believe they matter”. Enjoy these amazing stories.

Anita Le Lay Head of Disability Uniting


| Story Gatherer’s Notes |


can clearly remember my first meeting with the Uniting Ability Links program team. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word “linker” and at that stage, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. It was 2016 and we were gathered around a long conference table in downtown Parramatta. We could have been in any office, in any city, almost anywhere in the world. There were your usual bare white walls, a big whiteboard, and a zillion coloured post-it notes in the centre of the table. I soon learnt however that there was nothing “usual” about this meeting, or these “linker” people and their ideas. I might not have known what a linker actually was… but I was getting a fast-track lesson of what it felt like to be with them.

On that day, we were meeting to discuss how best to share their stories in a book (their first collection With Open Arms – 2017). There was great energy and optimism in the air. And belief. And a real spirit of welcome and openness. These were people on a mission who had time to stop and listen. Who wanted to work collaboratively and saw the power and potential of different ideas and perspectives. It was my first taste of the unique linker-style!

and create opportunities together. My hope is that this second book, With Open Hearts, will do the same for you. Stories are our great teachers. They are so good at making the unclear, clear. At getting to the heart of who we are and what we need. Of creating pictures that move us and stay with us. Stories remind us of our own potential. They nudge us (or jolt us) to re-discover our natural strengths and humanness. Stories help us become who we want to be. The main stories you will read here illuminate the 5 key elements of the linker model. These 5 elements are brought to life using the linkers’ own anecdotes, small stories and wisdom. The language is the linkers’ own too: real, straightforward and heartfelt. As always at the end of a story project, I feel I have learnt much more than I have been able to contribute. I’ve realised that every one of us has the power to be a natural linker and I suspect this is a great thing for us all to remember. In a world where stories seem so often to be made for us, shouldn’t we take every opportunity to make more of our own?

But it was only when I sat down the next day with 100 or so of their stories, that I got the full picture. Those stories told me everything I needed to know – not just about linking as a model, but as a natural way humans can connect

Moya Sayer-Jones Only Human Stories

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around…” Terry Pratchett


| The Link and Grow Model | Using what you know, naturally




It doesn’t matter whether you are tall or short,

round or square, in wheels or on feet, dressed as a rainbow or in black and white,

carry a whole lot of baggage or are as light as a feather...



SEE THE HUMAN AND BE A HUMAN “Everything rests on this. You don’t see this person in front of you as a person with a disability or as someone with a label, you simply see this person as a person. It all flows from there...”

“I’m just being human with other people who I happen to get to know; people who I happen to be naturally curious about. I’m not an expert. I’m just helping people, help themselves.”

“You’re seeing the person and seeing the potential at the same time. You’re moving outside the story that they bring for themselves and seeing what’s possible.”

BELIEVE IN THEM EVEN IF (OR ESPECIALLY IF) THEY’RE NOT BELIEVING IN THEMSELVES “Most of the people I speak to just want a greater sense of purpose. They want to use their time in a meaningful way. They want to do things where they’re giving back to their community or they’re using a skill or being useful in some way. They want to believe they matter...”


“They’re a wife, someone’s mum, a daughter, a gardener, a cook, a community member, a dreamer… they’re also some­ body who has a wheelchair or who has a learning impairment. You’re looking at all of the person. We’re being holistic in the sense that we’re not just focusing on one particular part of the person but on the whole human being.”




“Sally and her linker didn’t get to meet until 3 months after they started working together. Sally has a long history of mental health including agoraphobia and anxiety. Over that time, they kept in touch by phone and text so by the time they actually met, Sally already

PUT ASSUMPTIONS AWAY “A few months ago, I was very much doubting what the person I was working with could achieve. He proved me so wrong and achieved it anyway. I remembered how important it is to always move past your preconceptions and your own frames of reference. Not always easy but always the way to be.”

“We all judge. To be human is to judge. I think the biggest key for that is selfawareness – being really clear on what your own values, beliefs and ideas are. If you’re clear about that and you don’t need anybody else to believe them too… it’s a great start.”

felt relaxed and connected. She said not being forced


to meet face to face made

“If you have your own agenda, it can suffocate possibility for someone else. If you come with judgements they can get in the way of someone just being themselves. We just have to let these assumptions go.”

it much easier to find her confidence and step back into community.”


Not something to fix or change Not someone to feel sorry for Not something uncomfortably different Not someone to be responsible for



SEREN DIPITY THE FIRST TIME WE MET, HAITHAM ARRIVED before me. I saw him sitting In the far corner of the café, next to the window. He was very pleasant and had a warm smile and when he started talking about his circumstances, he told me about how being a father had been the most important thing in his life. There was sadness for him now that his daughters had grown up. They no longer needed their dad as much and weren’t around a lot, so his days were spent at home, just watching TV. As this gap in his life emerged, feelings of uselessness were settling in and that’s what brought him to this meeting with me. Initially, he was looking for some outdoor social groups to join and when we started to discuss local options, he told me how he’d lost his leg. Haitham grew up in Lebanon during the war and when he was a teenager, he and his father were caught in an attack on a city building. The blast and shrapnel tore through his body, severing his right leg from the thigh down. His father managed to lift him from the rubble and carry him in his arms to a near-by hospital. This moment changed his life forever and while the physical wounds have healed, the emotional wounds are deep. Haitham now suffers from “the demon” post-traumatic


stress disorder (PTSD). Feelings of anger and irritability can come and go – and change on a dime – impacting relationships, work, everything. As a former member of the armed forces, I understand first-hand and as I listened to the bigger story, a thought came out of nowhere. I remembered a local organisation that might just be a good fit. I’d once approached the Australian Resource Centre for PTSD (ARC4PTSD) for another reason and I knew the CEO, Michelle New was looking to start some support groups. And better yet, she needed someone to facilitate them. I asked Haitham if he would like to be a part of something like this? He straightened his back, put his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling for a few seconds. He was fighting hard to not allow a tear to leave his eyes. Eventually he made eye contact and I knew we were onto something. Three weeks later, I turned up at the Hawkesbury Community Centre for our first meeting with Michelle. A colleague Toni, who has an interest in PTSD, came along too. We were there right on time but of course, being the eager beaver that he is, Haitham was still there before us. This time he seemed a little different: apprehensive, almost nervous. We made our way down the corridor and were greeted by Michelle and a four-legged friend, her service dog - a chihuahua called “Harvey.” With Haitham’s permission, I shared his situation. I mentioned that Haitham would


be interested in engaging in some sort of a small PTSD support group and eventually would like to consider facilitating a group of his own or maybe even volunteering with their organisation. Michelle offered some counselling support for Haitham and his family to better understand the impact of PTSD and then ran through some programs she is developing that she could use some help with. She told us that she would welcome Haitham in any capacity. Throughout our meeting, I couldn’t help but notice that the fifth member of the group (little Harvey) was often stealing Haitham’s attention and at one point he mentioned his love for dogs and his history with them. Before then, I’d never heard that Haitham had been working with dogs since he was 21 years old and in fact, ran his own dog kennel from home. He bred them and trained them and knew everything about them including how to diagnose conditions based on the colour of their eyes, the smell of their breath or the sound of their bark. He also knew how to cross-breed. His knowledge of all things “dogs” was endless. We were all totally surprised by this sudden revelation because it came from left of field but Michelle was more than surprised: she was excited. Without saying a word, but with a look of great anticipation, Michelle walked over to her whiteboard and flipped it to the other side. Written on the board was the planning for a “service dog breeding and training” facility. There was a question mark next to who would

manage the project. Without asking directly, it was obviously implied that Haitham was the man for the job. Michelle warned us that this would be a lengthy process but was driven to pursue this project by the injustice of the cost of service dogs for people with disabilities and poor mental health. No one could afford to get their dog trained and certified at the cost of $30,000 dollars! And yet certification is essential for the dogs to accompany their owners in all circumstances. To begin the ball rolling, she offered for Haitham to attend training on-site at ARC4PTSD to get his own dog “service dog

certified” for free. And finally, she summed up the proposal by inviting him to be a part of the project development. This meant a paid position with the Australian Resource Centre for PTSD. We all sat there and looked at each other. Speechless and elated. How did that all just happen? Haitham broke the silence, “When can I start?” UPDATE: Haitham is now a key staff member at the centre. This story was written by Haitham’s linker, Neil



I hit the jackpot I WOULD OFTEN SEE EMANUEL on the streets of Lithgow. He’d be sitting on the ground on various street corners or walking the streets in his local community, clutching onto his green shopping bag. He seemed friendly with a happy smile on his face and would greet a few passers by. When I became a linker, I thought “Let’s have a chat and see where’s he at”, so I went up to him on the street and introduced myself. I told him about Ability Links and asked him if he’d like a chat. He did and so off we went for a coffee at a nearby cafe. He gave me a little rundown on his life including how he came to leave the big city and come to live in Lithgow in the first place. We arranged to meet the next week at the local library to talk some more and things took off from there.

Photo: Caroline Poulter

It soon became clear that Emanuel was very isolated in his new town. His future prospects looked so grim and this just didn’t seem right to me. I thought, “Hey, this is a guy who’s got potential. I can see that

he wants to live a ‘normal’ life but he just doesn’t know how to go about it.” Over the coming months, I started connecting him with the people and services that would help him towards the life he wanted. First stop was a GP, then the local mental health community services, then a podiatrist and a dietitian. We were now getting Emanuel’s physical and mental health in check and once they were happening, we started thinking of ways for him to connect with the community. For example, I introduced Emanuel to GROW, a local mental health support group. It was his first group activity and he was very nervous and overwhelmed the first couple of meetings. He continued to show up at every meeting though and now he refers to the other members of the group as his friends. They stop to chat in the street, they meet once in a while for lunch and Emanuel is usually the first to turn up at their regular meetings.


I discovered quite early that Emanuel liked music and cooking and these would be a great way to make life more interesting, get his creative juices going and find some like-minded souls. He now attends regular guitar lessons (a hidden talent) and a music group that’s open for people with a passion of music, of all abilities. At his cooking classes, he’s whipping up the meals recommended by his dietitian.

He told me he now looks forward to waking up, getting dressed in his work clothes, to begin work at 7:30 a.m. “I hit the jackpot” Emanuel told me. Now, that does feel right! Written by Emanuel’s linker, Caroline

Photo: Caroline Poulter

These days, Emanuel’s life is filled with meaningful activities and friendships. He’s not smiling on the corner these days –

he’s smiling at his part-time job at Access Industries – a disability support employment service. He loves it and now feels complete having a job and the ability to earn an income.


It takes a village



A time to learn My background is in learning support and that’s how I first came to meet Theresa. She was doing a Community Support Certificate and she needed some help kicking off her essay writing skills. Our relationship has developed from there. Theresa hadn’t written for a long time. She grew up in the Durambul Nation, one of 10 kids, with a very hard-working Mum and an alcoholic Dad. She had been afforded the luxury of full-time schooling but struggled with dislexia which impacted on important learning foundations. She left home young and went on to experience addiction and violence. Now, as a middle aged woman, she longed for tertiary qualifications and I could tell right from the start that nothing was going to stand in her way. Theresa was focused on her learning journey: no essay would be too long, no class too early and no teenage boy, in the next seat, too noisy! Theresa has a big smile, sharp wit and a good yarn to tell. She is caring and kind and will be a fabulous peer worker when her studies are complete. She’s in the throes of work placement now and it’s obvious she’ll do well, she’ll get a job, she will be successful. One of the best things has been watching her gain confidence and independence. She’s an inspiration to her classmates, teachers and especially to me. This story was written by Theresa’s linker, Kristi




Create the best conditions for the person to shine. Flexibility is the key.




“Right up front, ask simple questions to help the person feel more comfortable and safe. ‘Well, what do you reckon? Is this cafe okay with you or shall we go somewhere else?’ Or ‘Geez, it’s a bit hot in here, are you hot?’ ‘Are you happy to sit here?’ ‘How much time do you have?’ ”

“You may have an idea about where the conver­ sation is going and then you notice something change in the other person. That’s a good time to stop and ask ‘I just want to check, are you ok?’ ”

GET OUT OF THE DRIVER’S SEAT “It’s all about letting someone take their own time and get to their own solutions. We can help them with that but we need to let them take the lead. It’s a constant self-reflective practice of asking, ‘Who’s leading here? Me or them? Me? Right, got to pull back.’ ” “I don’t mind leading a little bit but I only want to be one step ahead. Once I get two steps ahead, I’ve got to come back.”

GIVE IT THE TIME IT NEEDS “Often when we first meet somebody they say, ‘This is what I want to do’ but that’s possibly not really why they’re there. And probably not what they want to do. How can you both tell? Well you need to take the time to find out more, to explore not just what they want to do, but what they’re already doing. What are their interests? Who are they? What’s their background? Usually you’ll find out other things… and they will too.”

“Some people want to be heard and understood and they need a lot of time for that.” “Taking that time, respecting their space and realising that it may take a few conversations and being completely at ease with that. You’re knowing that, ‘Hey, we’re not going to get where she wants to get overnight’. Or ‘We’re not going to get everything we need over the phone because this may actually take a fair bit of time with each other…’ ”

“When I give people information, I have to step back and say, ‘Over to you.’ It’s not my role to lead or control the outcome. I’m providing the information for them to act on when they’re ready.”


LINKER WISDOM CHANGE WITH THEM “You might have someone that comes to you and says they want to join a book club and you think, ‘this person really loves reading!’ But after talking and finding out about their history, you might discover that actually they have nobody in their life. Really, their main issue is loneliness. A book club was the only idea they had so far about how to meet people. They might not be interested in books at all!”

BE CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE “I remember when I was working with a mum and child who were Indian and previously lived in Dubai. The most important thing was asking questions. I needed to understand their ideas about the disability and how they wanted to be supported. It's working out how to hold onto their idea of community support from their previous country of residence and see how they can build up that base here in Australia. Sometimes there’s no extended family and it’s very difficult for the person to trust ‘strangers’.”

“There’s great knowledge in families – find one or two family connections to help you develop trust and understand culture. Reach out to people who are already working with Aboriginal communities.”

“An Aboriginal linker had to defuse an angry situation between a school and an Aboriginal person. The mum had been called to a meeting at the school regarding her son's behaviour. The linker had been informed that the behaviour in question was really concerning but the mum hadn't been warned. She felt she had been lied to by the school and by her linker and this distrust seriously affected her openness to accept support. The linker was honest and upfront with the mum about their part within the situation and acknowledged that we don’t always get it right. This was an integral step in rebuilding trust and the family went on to accept much needed support.”


When we believe in someone, we create a space to dream 27



t wa s a c o m m u n i t y e n g a g e m e n t

event in an area that’s badly under-resourced: a place that feels strangely isolated and forgotten, even though it’s really not far from Blacktown centre at all. Santa Claus arrived for the kids, and a fire truck was on display and a few different agencies were there to talk with the locals.


I’d been invited, along with the other service providers, to meet people and tell them about our program. Looking back, I guess we could have all sounded pretty much the same... “Here’s how we help...we want to help… let us help...” I noticed one resident, standing back. She was just watching and listening and she definitely didn’t look impressed. She’d heard enough and I suspect she was thinking, “Oh what a crock of crap.” When I struck up a conversation with her, she told me she’d heard the same spiel for years. “I’ve heard it all before,” she said. “They come, they hear about the issues, they make promises to help and then they leave. And no-one hears from them again”. I tried to convince her that at Ability Links, we aren’t like that. I told her that


we follow up and do the hard yards for the people we work with but she wasn’t having a bar of it. She was a straight talker and a very convincing woman. Her name was Debbie. The rest of the event was spent with her giving me a list of things she’d asked other services to help her with in the past – and she hadn’t heard back about. I kept trying to convince her I was different but every time, she would just give me that knowing look and laugh my protests away. Before I left, I was finally able to convince her to take my card. I explained that I would be on leave for a few weeks and asked her to call me so we could continue to chat. She shrugged as though she didn’t care one way or the other, but in the end, she did take my card. And I took that as a little win! To my surprise, when I returned to work after the holidays, I had several voicemails from her and, when I called her back, she made it clear that she would be holding me to my word. She was expecting results and she wanted them yesterday. The challenge was on! She told me she was very concerned as she had noxious weeds growing that were giving herself and her daughter severe rashes and itchy skin. She said that they had overtaken her yard and


she couldn’t go out there anymore. As the tenant, looking after her backyard was part of her responsibility but this needed more than just a gardening day to fix. These weeds are so poisonous they need a special process and professional removal: and that would cost thousands of dollars. I started looking for an answer. I researched every avenue I could think of and made call after call with no success until finally, I found what I needed. It was a council run environment protection program that was set up to remove dangerous weeds like these without any cost to the residents. I contacted the person overseeing this program and organised a meeting with him and Debbie. This would be my big moment to show Debbie that we do what we say we do! The meeting day came and then… the program manager didn’t show up! Debbie wasn’t surprised of course: she didn’t really expect that anyone would help her. Challenge back on! I took photos of these massive bushlike weeds in her backyard and emailed them to the program manager along with some information about the resident. Immediately, I received a very apologetic phone call with the assurance that he would look into it.

To me, this was an encouraging develop­ ment but Debbie still wasn’t impressed of course. She kept checking up on me to see if I had made any pro­gress and every time I didn’t have the answer, she was not reluctant to express her dissatisfaction. Luckily before too long, the call came that help was on its way and Debbie was booked for the poisoning and the removal. SUCCESS! For the first time in all our conversations, Debbie was quiet when I told her the news. She said that she couldn’t believe that someone actually did something they said they would and that someone actually cared. I could hear the change in her voice and then she thanked me for helping her. Since our work together, Debbie’s whole demeanour has changed and softened. She’s now in charge of the project herself and does all the communication between herself and the council and the landlords. She’s seen that she can do this herself. She’s linking it all together. She doesn’t need me now. I feel like we’ve really achieved something much bigger than the backyard for this strong, persistent lady. Mission completed.

to turn this very old story around. We all had to suspend judgement with each other and keep the faith going to get the result. I’m proud that she now knows that even though other people have let her down, there are some in the community that are going to help. People who she can reach out to. And now Debbie’s spreading the word to others in her little neighbourhood who’ve got the same issue. She’s found a way to be a natural linker. She’s not standing at the back anymore: now, she’s the one doing the talking. Debbie’s linker, Paula, wrote this story (just like she said she would!)

It took just three weeks for Debbie and me and the Council program officer,



GUESS WHAT PETER’S WEARING TO DINNER This is a story about 40-year-old Peter, his Mum Maylene and a new handbag. Peter lives alone in a unit above his very elderly Chinese parents. They care for Peter and look after all his needs. When I first met Maylene, she was trying to find ways for Peter to extend his social circle. He’d made a few friends at a service centre he used to go to but now that he’d moved on from there, he didn’t have a friend in the world. ‘It took me three years to find my last friends,’ he told me, sadly. ‘Hopefully, it’ll be quicker this time.’ I said. But I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Peter’s whole life had run on strict routines and he was hesitant to change anything. No matter what we tried, he always had an excuse. He didn’t like some places because they were noisy; or he didn’t go to night-time things because he wanted to be home at a certain time. He put a lot of restrictions on himself. In the end, we did find a new Centre that he liked where he would meet new people. It was close by and he could go anytime he wanted. There was a café downstairs too where a lot of disability services and groups meet. I went along with him the first few times and I made sure I introduced him around. The lady who runs the place was happy to look out for him and Pete was happy to sit back and settle in at his own pace. The LGBTQI group was particularly warm and open and that’s what Peter was looking for – people to genuinely welcome him. So the weeks went by and things were looking good until out of the blue I got a call from a very stressed out Maylene.

‘What do you know about cross dressing, Geoff?’ she asked. ‘And LGBTQI people?’ Apparently Peter had come home one day with a handbag and he was wearing it proudly (and defiantly) whenever he visited his mother. She was in tears. This wasn’t like Peter. What did it mean? He was acting like a teenager! This very traditional mother was confused and scared. She’d done a bit of research but needed to understand it more. ‘A lot of men carry bags that might look like a handbag,’ I told her when we met up. ‘No, no, no. It’s a women’s bag!’ she insisted. ‘With shiny leather and a long gold chain!’ I reassured her that cross dressing doesn’t necessarily mean a change in sexual preference or gender preference. And Peter wasn’t showing signs of any risky behaviours or connections. After talking with him, I wasn’t sure that he was 100% committed to the bag or understood exactly what goes with it. The boundaries he was pushing were possibly less about gender and more about his family and the very restrictive life he’s lived until now. I found Maylene some counsellors from both the mainstream and LGBTQI communities who would understand the cultural and traditional aspects of the family and some psychologists for Peter so he has more education and understanding around it too. The family now needs to work through it together. I’ve had some interesting conversations with Maylene since then. She’s a lot calmer now and is open to the idea that Peter needs to decide for himself what he wants. The most important thing, is giving choice back to Peter so he can find his own path. Downstairs, 87-year-old Maylene is on a new learning curve. Upstairs, Peter is on one too.

This story was told by Peter’s linker, Geoff 33

More fish in the sea Holding back on questions about some things you notice in a person, is really important.

When I first met Blake, it felt like he’d already been on a really, really long journey. He didn’t look me in the eyes, he was hunched over and sunk way back in his chair. He came with no hope at all. His many tattoos and short responses, reflected a tough guy who’d been humbled by circumstances. We were meeting because Blake’s applications for a Disability Support Pension had been rejected and he wanted to be connected with someone who could help. He didn’t talk more than he had to and he didn’t welcome questions about other parts of his life. When I asked if he would like to meet again in a week and handed him a consent form, he didn’t answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but he did take the form and start to fill it in. I suspected he struggled with literacy (he moved away from me to write) but I left him to manage himself. With all his efforts directed at hiding his difficulty and with us not yet knowing each other well, it was too soon. We met every week following that appointment and sometimes, we would need to see each other three times a week. Each time, he looked me in the eyes a little more and shared a little more about his life.

Getting to know the things that are important to the person is helpful: Blake’s experience as a fisherman was a large part of his sense of self..

I learnt that he has a son and two daughters that he used to be a fisherman and how he desperately misses the culture that came with the sea. Five years before, he fell down some stairs and broke his ankle. There were complications with his surgery that led to ongoing health conditions and during this time his partner passed away from a rare form of cancer. I remember a conversation where Blake looked up at me and said, ‘Life sure has thrown me some lemons’. I asked what keeps him going? He wasn’t shy this time and quickly responded, ‘My kids. I get up most mornings and take my son surfing, I take his friends too. It’s those moments that keep me going’. Each time we meet, Blake grows taller in his chair. Sometimes before meetings, he’ll message me saying he’s nervous but he


In time and with consistency people often open up and share their feelings. They will share when it’s right for them.

Asking Blake if he would like to meet with someone so he could gain more knowledge on the ‘day in the life’ of an aged care worker, was another way to support his dream.

continues to show up. We’ve met with legal aid to gain support with his DSP rejection, to a financial advisor for his super and with an employment advisor to discuss his health and learning challenges, and his secret dream to work in aged care. This time, Blake didn’t hide his literacy or numeracy struggles: he laid it on the line. Blake was on his way. I’ve also snuck in some encouragement, and ideas, for Blake to get more social. Not always with the same success! He howled laughing at my recommendation for a meditation group but told me he’d been thinking about creating his own men’s group. A place where ‘Blokes can just get together: not pour their hearts out but just know that while they’re together, they’re not alone’.

Blake knew best what he needed for himself. He needed choice, flexibility and control to make his own way to his goal.

I think he’s realising that maybe he can find a ‘fisherman’s culture’ again - even without a boat! Update: Just this week, I heard from Blake again. The employment advisor has been a disappointment. She isn’t following through with opportunities that honour Blake’s learning limitations and physical barriers, as she promised. Blake told me he knows he’ll do better with someone with a longer term approach to employment and a holistic approach to his needs. When I first heard this news, I was just so disappointed that it hadn’t worked out but then I thought: ‘Hey, this a great sign of his new confidence. Blake is advocating for himself now. He’s expecting services to do what they say they’ll do.’ This is a huge step because rejections around Disability Support, can often pull people down and make them focus on their weaknesses. Not Blake. He’s not looking down anymore. He’s looking ahead. Blake’s hope is coming through loud and clear. And of course… I have another idea up my sleeve for him. I’ve met a different advisor who’s doing incredible things with someone else I work with. I can’t wait to put those two together. ———— Written by Blake’s linker, Tamara

There are so many groups, activities and services available in the community. When Blake was not happy with the service I was able to suggest another one. Keep looking out for people in your community who can help.


Not colour by numbers


met Kate at the community resource centre and if I’m being really honest, my first reaction was a bit of frustration. I had a backlog of people wanting support and here was a woman who looked like she didn’t need any. She was well presented, intelligent and highly tech-savvy. Why on earth would someone like her need a linker to help find an art class? Couldn’t she just Google it? This experience is a great reminder of how mental health does not discriminate and we should never judge a book by its cover. Of course, as linkers do, I consciously let go of those assumptions when I sat down with her and we started to talk. At that stage, I’m not sure that even Kate herself fully knew why she’d come in. She relaxed a little more each time we met and I soon realised that


the idea of finding a class was more to do with Kate seeking some human connections than brushing up on her watercolour skills. She confided that despite looking so confident, she didn’t feel that way. She told me she often found it difficult even to leave her house and it became clear that she was terrified of groups but equally terrified of being lonely. Where to go next? There was a lot we could have focused on in terms of getting a health team around her but instead, I started by focusing on what would bring her joy. What would make a difference in a practical and immediate way? People usually know exactly what they need to do to help themselves...but sometimes they just need someone to do it with. So when we found an art class and Kate said

‘I’m interested but would you come along with me?’, my response was an immediate ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we do!’ Her face absolutely lit up and she was like ‘Really? Because I’m totally nervous!’ I explained that over time, when she felt comfortable, she’d just go along by herself and a big smile came over her face. It’s humbling to know that something as simple as going along with someone to a group, can mean so much. The following week Kate and I attended the first watercolour class. In the beginning, she was a little withdrawn but after everyone settled in, she started to connect with her fellow artists. It was a beautiful, beautiful group of women actually. A really nice space and lots of creative things around. Kate was soon looking right at home and had started

a conversation with the woman beside her. By the end of the class, I was just sitting back entirely and she was right into it. Afterwards, when we walked back to our cars together, I asked Kate if she would like me to come along to the next session. She looked at me like she really didn’t want to offend me and said, ‘Thanks Tamara but it’s okay. It was a lot easier than I thought!’ It was such a funny moment: like she felt a bit bad about cutting me loose but of course, that was the absolute best result for Kate. And me. For her to say she was okay and confident now in a natural community setting? To me, that was the ultimate success. Now there were new colours in the story and that’s exactly what we were trying for. Written by Kate’s linker, Tamara




Ladies and gentlemen, leave all judgements at the door. Dive into the person’s world with quiet curiosity, responding to the most subtle cues...



ACTIVELY LISTEN “I know I need to focus, I need to pay attention, I’m not a passive listener – I’m right in it. I might say, ‘Well you just told me this and this and I just want to make sure that I understand’. I find that when I listen and ask questions, the person finds their own light bulb moment.”

RESPOND TO THE PERSON’S CUES “Body language is a great clue to what’s happening under the surface. If someone is fidgety or seems tense or is looking around a bit or perhaps is speaking more quietly than normal, then it can make all the difference to gently say, ‘Are you okay? Are you comfortable? Would you like to go for a walk and talk?”

“Get to know the person as much as they want to be known. No more, no less.” “We need to think about how the person is responding to us. You might be a naturally curious person but that doesn’t mean doesn’t mean that you should expect to hear their whole life story. Usually a person tells or shows you how curious they want you to be. And they’ll let you know how involved they want you to be, too.” “I’m always curious about the whole person and that can be quite a tricky thing. You want to understand more about them but you need to know the difference between when they’re happy to share and when they’re uncomfortable.”

LET GO OF YOUR AGENDA “Self-awareness is key. It’s about being really clear on what your own values, beliefs and ideals are and letting go of the need for anybody else to be like you.”

Set your expectations free!



LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGEMENT “Here was this woman who looked like she didn’t need any help. She was well presented, intelligent and highly tech-savvy. Why on earth would someone like her need a linker to help find an art class? This experience was a great reminder that we should never judge a book by its cover.”

Every person has the right to their own journey. You have to detach yourself from your ideas of a good outcome. And that you should provide it. The outcomes are theirs and only theirs to get. I can’t tell you how hard that is to do!



“There’s a lot of value in really listening to what people want and how they want to live their lives. What do they want their lives to look like? The more you listen to someone, the more you’re really getting to know the intricacies that make them who they are. This helps so much in supporting them to take their next steps.”

I love waking to the smell of possibility in the morning.


A timely conversation

This gave me an opening to ask how she was doing within herself. Carers often don’t see the need to take care of themselves

Empathy and understanding can go a long way to help the person feel seen.

Ah-ha moments happen when a new way of thinking about something we’re struggling with clicks into place, it can happen in one conversation or after many conversations.


I was on the phone with a mum named Anna and we were talking about whether our program would be a good fit for her son, Sam. While Anna led the way, the conversation became an opportunity for her to reflect. Anna was calling because her 15 year old Sam had received his NDIS package and now she was trying to find specialists or activities to build his social skills. Sam felt that no one liked him or cared whether he contributed or not: and he couldn’t be bothered engaging with the world. Anna was in tears as she told me how worried she was about Sam. Obviously, now was the time to pause for a minute and check in whether she was okay. Did Anna need some support for herself? I always keep my eye out for carer’s because often they’re so focused on the person they’re caring for, that their own needs fall by the wayside. And sure enough, Anna wasn’t going for it. She told me that she worked in a disability service herself and she didn’t consider herself a carer. ‘I see carers as parents of kids with intense caring needs,’ she explained ‘and that’s not the case with Sam.’ This gave us a chance to talk some more around what a carer was and before long, I could almost hear her smiling on the other end of the line when she said: ‘Well if I’m crying over the phone to someone I don’t know, then maybe I do need some support after all.’ We started talking about what Sam was already doing in terms of interests and hobbies and Anna had an ‘ah ha’ moment. She realised that Sam was actually quite active in doing things that interest him but he wasn’t connecting with anyone while he was doing them. This new insight got us thinking of different ideas together. Maybe they could use some of the funding to employ a support worker who can get involved with Sam through his interests? With the right companion alongside him, Sam would see and experience good social skills, in a natural way.

We always try to look at the whole person and that includes all the people who support them. Looking out for people who nurture others directly impacts the family in many ways and has a wide reach within the community.

Finding a person who has the same particular interest as you validates your own interest which helps build your sense of self-worth, we all need that as we move through life.

Instead of time in therapy trying to engage Sam in learning social skills, he’d be picking them up by being social in the first place! It’s always amazing how a simple, creative conversation at the right time can make all the difference. Anna was now looking at things in a totally new way. She’d turned a big corner and now she was ready (and wanting) to run with the new possibilities. After the call, I sent a quick email with some more information for Anna to follow up on if she so chose. That was the first and last phone call we ever had...but the story doesn’t end there.

We want people to build their own capacity and find their own solutions so we leave the door open for them to contact us. This means we don’t always find out what happened after our meetings or phone calls. We need to find a way to be ok with this… to be part of a story without needing to know how things turn out. Or even whether we’ve been as useful as we hoped.

Almost a year later, I was at a disability event and I started chatting to a lady representing an Early Childhood service. When she heard I was from Ability Links, she told me that she’d once spoken with a linker over the phone about her son. ‘We had amazing results from that one conversation.’ And yes, we worked out that she was Anna and I was the linker and then she filled me in on what had happened next. They'd now found a mentor with similar interests to Sam and employed him under the HireUp model to do activities together out in the community. Sam had built up significant social skills and confidence and now he was actively taking part in many other community activities. ‘I hadn’t even thought of things like that before we spoke,’ she said. ‘That conversation changed our lives. Lesson: Turning a big corner like this doesn’t always happen everytime or overnight but there’s always the possibility that the simplest interaction will bring rewards way beyond what we might expect. And lower our fearfulness about how we will manage the future. ———— Written by Anna’s linker, Tania

When we get caught up in a conversation it can be really hard to remember the information we’ve been given. Written information in dot points or website links can be really helpful.

So many more options become possible when we feel confident in our ability to connect to other people.

I provided a sounding board, an open mind and some suggestions, Anna and Sam found the solutions that worked for them.




e’d been working in a juvenile

really thought about work like that. He told me

detention centre, running our

getting paid well for work wasn’t an option for

More 2 Life program. It’s designed

him because he wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t

to empower young people to

going to Uni – it wasn’t even in the picture. That

think about what brought them there and the

day, I took the time to seed a few options like

choices they now have. It runs for six sessions.

apprenticeships and wondered why no-one had

In our Dream Big activity, we ask questions like,

spoken to him about them before.

“Where will you be in 5 years? What will your life

When my colleague Adam and I turned up

be like?” In sixteen year old Jimmy’s group, every

to the Centre for our next session, we were very

single participant said they would be in gaol.

surprised to see Jimmy on the wrong side of the

I remember talking to Jimmy whose crimes

wall. He was outside in the carpark. He told us he’d

were all around robbery. He had this real drive

been released on bail. “I’ll see you soon, Miss,” he

to make money and just assumed this would

said, and took off with his family.

lead to gaol. I asked him, “What about making a

I was absolutely certain that would be the

lot of money through work?” He said he’d never

last I would see of him. I was wrong. The next


I asked Jimmy what he’d really want to do if money wasn’t a factor, he said “...work with kids, so they don’t end up like me.”

certificate to prove his commitment when he went to court. He told me he knew he was still “facing time” but he wanted a chance to do things differently. It wasn’t easy but I knew I needed to be realistic with him about how his bail restrictions would affect what we could achieve. He seemed deflated, almost assuming that we were going to let him down. I reached out to Troy, a community mentor, to work with Jimmy and come along to our sessions. Jimmy, Troy and I spoke at length about the choices that had brought Jimmy here. I’ll never forget the moment when he looked at me and asked if I knew the feeling of being able


week, Jimmy reached out to us through his

to put petrol in your parents’ car so they could

community Juvenile Justice Officer. Apparently,

keep working. The truth was that I didn’t. I didn’t

Jimmy wanted to continue working together but

understand the circumstances that made him feel

when I heard about his bail conditions, I couldn’t

so helpless but I didn’t think it justified the means

imagine how it would work. He was only allowed

to the end either.

to be at home or in school and nowhere else

As the school year finished, Jimmy gave us

unless he was escorted by his family. I figured

his mobile number and agreed to stay in contact.

as linkers, we had finally met our match because

It was going to be hard for him without the

how can you link someone into community if they

structure of school. I was certain the pull from the

can’t access the community? But I knew I had to

street would be too overwhelming and he would

try or at least keep in contact. If I didn’t, Jimmy

breach his bail conditions. Again, I should have

would never trust me again.

had more faith because Jimmy did stay in touch.

That first visit he remained reserved when I

I encouraged the mentor relationship between

told him I’d do whatever I could to help, including

him and Troy and agreed to research options

sitting with him at school so he could finish the

for him around employment so that whether

More 2 Life program. He’d then at least have his

he had to return to jail or not, there would still

be choices and things to look forward to. When

Now he’s spreading the word and the hope. He

I asked Jimmy what he’d really want to do if

convinced the two other young people who were

money wasn’t a factor, he said “...work with kids

involved in his crime, to come along and see us.

so they don’t end up like me.” This gave us the idea. What would happen if Jimmy had a chance

“You’ve got to get out of the game,” he told them. “This is so much better.”

to experience the feeling of using his experiences

Now all three have secured apprenticeships

to show young kids the impact of bad choices.

with the same company. They’re three best

And inspire them to do better.

friends who made some bad choices who are now

Troy ran a lot of youth programs and he

able to do something better together.

gave Jimmy a chance to volunteer and even lead

Jimmy’s story is still in play but he now

various youth led sessions. From that moment,

knows that he has choices. He’s hopeful. As he

Jimmy flourished. He finished More 2 Life and

keeps telling me, “When I make my first million

completed a Future Leaders program through

Miss, I won’t forget you helped me.”

Rapport Leadership Australia. He’s exceeded our expectations in every way. Around this time, we found Jimmy an apprenticeship.

This story was written by Jimmy’s linker, Christine


MORE THAN THE TWO OF US I met Nina and her thirteen-year-old son, Billy, at an Aboriginal football knockout competition. Nina is a single mum, raising Billy with little or no supports. She would often bring Billy to events like this hoping to connect him more with his culture. She is European and Billy’s dad is Aboriginal. Nina told me that Billy was diagnosed with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a young age and now, as a teenager, he wasn’t involved in any local sports activities or school gatherings – like discos. He chose not to play with the other children in his street and he wouldn’t settle of a night time until his mum went to bed too. Nina was simply not aware of all the support she could potentially tap into. She’s the sort of mum who would go anywhere and take anything on board for her son but she had been doing it all on her own. She hadn’t 48

known how to go about getting the support that could bring a more inclusive, and better lifestyle for them both. At first, Billy didn’t want to make eye contact with me and spoke only to his mum but gradually, he started to feel safe and comfortable enough to share his own hopes and needs. He told me he liked cricket and tennis and would like to be able to join a club one day. He also told me he would like me to meet his teacher and counsellor. I started looking for inclusive sport clubs that would give Billy a trial and I introduced him to Justin, an Aboriginal linker, who could be a familiar male to visit Billy each week and help with getting cultural connections started. This was a really good thing to do because apart from his dad, Billy didn’t have any Aboriginal male role models in his life. Justin could also attend meetings at school as culture support.

Nina and I continued to meet too and each time, it was a little more relaxed and I gained more understanding. For example, I learnt that the family didn’t own any of the sensory equipment that could help when Billy needed calming or distracting. Uniting’s Aboriginal staff group, Jaanimili, was able to provide a weighted blanket (which helped him settle in the evening) and a pair of noise reducing earphones. The earphones meant he could spend more time at loud community events without getting upset or restless. Including the school disco! Many things have changed since that first meeting at the footie. Billy’ teachers tell us that his social skills have started to improve. He’s becoming more involved in class activities and is joining other kids in the playground at recess and lunch.

Recently, he received his first plan with the NDIS and now he and Nina are both more aware about what services are available to him. He loves to get out in the community to Aboriginal specific functions where he can learn more about his culture and be an active participant. Now Billy can make his own choices. He has his own voice. Billy is finding his power. This story was told by Billy’s linker, Naomi

Relationships take time to develop. I think you’ve got to respect that and be at ease with it. You need to accept that things aren’t always sorted, fixed or understood in a couple of meetings. Or over the phone… 49



Think outside the box. (It’s fun out there)



“You often meet a person who has a particular want – but it doesn’t exist yet. So then it’s about saying, ‘Okay, let’s think outside the box and get creative about how to make something happen.’ ” “What people want will change all the time... One of the very first people I ever worked with wanted two things: a job and to socialise more. He was interested in a chess club but it wasn’t meeting anymore. We couldn’t find anything like that around but I did link him up with some work experience. He then got hired by them and now he does lots of socialising through work. So he doesn’t want a chess club any more, he’s got all the social experiences he needs.” “If someone comes with a definite idea, you start looking at what is already out there. What are other people doing? You keep looking around, keeping curious about what’s out there. You chat to friends and your network.”

“When I spoke with Michael in juvenile justice, he had this real drive about making money and his crimes were all about robbery. I asked him, ‘What about work?’. He told me that he’d never actually thought about that. I took the time to speak to him about lots of different options. It opened up the world to him.”



THE POWER IS IN THE PERSON “I had this little light bulb moment and realized that there's a whole lot of learning that this person could be gaining but I was doing it all for her! She was perfectly capable but just needed a little support. We sat down together and really nutted out what she wanted to do and then we narrowed it down to where she wanted to look for work experience. She went on to do it all herself. We even had a discussion about maybe her having a go at contacting someone - a cold call which was a massive thing for her to do. And she did it.” “It was a change in the way I was working – it was no longer about just about creating a link and off I go. It was an enriching experience for her to be part of that process and she loved it.”

“It’s all about the journey and the learning along the way. The journey IS the destination.” “The first step is realising the achievements the person has already made on their own. Then, together, you can build the skills and confidence they'll need to go that next step. For example, you might say ‘I can sit here but you can definitely make this phone call yourself! Here’s the number.’ ”



“You see the person as a whole person and you start to imagine possibilities that maybe they haven’t dared imagine yet. You’re bringing ideas but not expecting those ideas to be taken up. You’re helping them think through all of the possibilities that are available and always looking for a spark.” “When someone is emerging from a crisis period, they’re ready for other wonderful things in their life to unfold. Create a space for them to dream.” “You can inspire people to reach out of their comfort zone in many ways and sometimes it’s simply about tapping into their passions. Even if you know very little about the areas they’re passionate about, we can all learn together and broaden our knowledge. This can lead to unexpected outcomes.”

START A CONVERSATION What do you love to do most? I like music. What do you like to do? I like to sing. Well if you like singing, have you thought about a choir? Yes but I can’t see myself ever going . Why not? I couldn’t just turn up with people. What if I came with you at first? You’d do that? Of course. There’s a group that practises in the community centre, I think... Let’s find out and go for it!

“The power is in the conversation. It’s good sometimes to dive in deep. Never underestimate what’s possible in these ordinary conversations.” “As long as you’ve got a conversation going, you have a chance to generate a new idea.”



KYLIE: I used to be very confident and had lots friends but when I developed a bipolar disorder in 2000, everything

changed. I retreated to my main supporter, my mum, and just hibernated. In a short time I went from being sociable to finding it really hard to communicate with people. It’s taken a long time to find my way back.

I’ve always been artistic and over the years, I’ve used art and writing as a form of self-therapy. When my NDIS package was approved in 2018, I decided I wanted to use my artistic interests in ways that would involve me with people.

I rang Ability Links and spoke with Kem. She asked me what my dream was. I told her that for a long time I’d been writing and illustrating a series of childrens’ stories. My big dream was to get my books out, particularly to children with mental issues because the stories are about how to cope with different emotions and find good friends. Kem’s belief was inspiring. I don’t think she knew exactly how we were going to get them published but that wasn’t going to stop her.


I saw her talent straight away but initially I felt like, ‘This is going to be really difficult! How am I going to find everything she needs?’ I started researching.

KYLIE: I’ll never forget the day Kem handed me a form and said, ‘We need to get it in by Monday.‘ It was an application form for a Uniting grant. If we got it, I’d be able to publish.


While we waited, I was also following up some leads from the Illawarra Writers group. We found a writer who offered to edit and provide a discounted mentorship program. She also connected Kylie with an company to help with the illustrations. Once we heard the grant was successful, it was all systems go. The grant covered all the costs and the printing of 150 copies of the first book.

KYLIE: ‘Okay, this is real’, I thought when I heard we’d got the grant. ‘I won’t just be doing this at home anymore. I’ll be connecting with an artistic community. I’ll be part of it.’


My fellow linker John was intrigued by Kylie’s project too. He suggested that she could start introducing the book to schools, to see what the interest was.

KYLIE: When he suggested that, I was like, ‘Oh no, John! I thought I’d be able to wait until the books were actually

published first.’ Only joking, It was a great thing to do - it pushed me out of my comfort zone. I went out there and I talked to people and I got great feedback. I know now that when they’re printed, I’ve got schools who are waiting to use them.


It’s been such a touching and rewarding experience. I really did help someone make their dream come true.

KYLIE: And now, I’m starting to consider other ways to tell these stories: in audio? In braille? Hey Kem, hey John…I’ve got an idea!



Sometimes you meet someone and they ask about something and you think, “Oh I don’t know how I’m going to be able to help them with that” and the next day or two, you walk past a poster... or get handed a flyer… or hear something on the radio with exactly the information you need. It’s spooky but the answer just seems to miraculously appear.


Jackson’s Mum was worried about him. He’d suffered many tragedies at a young age and his mental health had suffered. Now at seventeen years old he struggled with a visual impairment and lack of confidence, panic attacks and anxiety. He disliked school with a passion: he just wanted to get out and grow up. But his Mum was like, ‘No Jackson, no way you’re going to just drop out of school without finding a job or something!’ She asked me to help him get started. At first, Jackson found it difficult to communicate what he wanted in life but with the right question or two, I found out a few great clues. He needed to find a work experience activity for school; he thought he might want to be a landscape gardener and he really wanted to gain his drivers’ licence. So landscaping it was. I helped Jackson to zero in on his goals, write a resume and learn how to cold canvass local companies. He was really eager and soon found a work experience placement with a landscaping business. They were so happy with him, especially his willingness to take on new things, that they offered a full time apprenticeship. It was an incredible outcome. Before I became a linker, I was an employment consultant and I’d never placed anyone in a job as quickly and easily as that! Two years went by and recently, I had the privilege of catching up with both Jackson and his HR manager Belinda again. I wanted

to see firsthand how Jack was doing in his apprenticeship and I was amazed. He was no longer the awkward, disengaged school boy who didn’t know what he wanted. He’d developed into a happy, smiling, confident young man. Belinda told me that Jackson had flourished in his position and was now well into his second year of landscaping. She mentioned that he was a keen learner and always displayed an enthusiasm to learn and improve. He’s continuing to complete TAFE and excelling as a student, demonstrating a real interest in his trade and what he is working towards. (What a difference to that kid who couldn’t wait to leave school.) Jackson told me that he’s done many new and interesting things that he never could have managed without this job: travelling through Europe on Contiki, successfully obtaining his driver’s license and buying his first car. The job has not only given him a stable income to achieve this, but also a new found confidence built from working in a meaningful job that he loves. Sometimes it can be easy to underestimate the impact we can have on someone’s life. Jackson’s story is a heart-warming reminder that one seemingly tiny link has the potential to change a person’s future. This story was written by Jackson’s linker, Shara (she also writes great CVs)



I was meeting a new family. The mum was struggling with her seven year old, Caine and he obviously needed more help than he was getting. She had another child with ADHD and OCD and she was doing it all on her own. Caine needed an appointment with a paediatrician. He was a very bright little fella and a bit of a character. He made it clear from the start that he didn’t like people talking about him, in front of him. If I was asking his mum something, he’d be like, “Don’t talk about me: I’m right here. Talk to me about it.” So, then I’d go, “Oh okay, Caine. I’m sorry. So, what about school? What happens when you get angry?”

Photos: Amber Baker, senior linker from the Mariyung team.

And the funny thing is, then he’d go, “No, I don’t want to talk to you about it.” She told me Caine was unpredictable: one minute he’d be fine, and the next he’d be off the chart and shut off from the world and screaming and very upset. There was a point where he was even violent, not just to his mum or his sisters, but himself. Other services had tried connecting with the family for different reasons but without much success. I guess it takes time to build that relationship. As an Aboriginal worker myself it’s easier: you can instantly find that connection through culture. My relationship with mum was quite natural and easy: we’re both Aboriginal, we’re both women, we both have children with a disability. Building the relationship with Caine was going to be a bit harder. The first couple of visits were about establishing a connection with him. I noticed he played a game called Roblox, which my kids play as well, and it was through the game that we created this really awesome bond. It might have looked like we were

playing a computer game but actually we were building a fantastic, trusting relationship. I learnt to either not talk about Caine directly, or talk to him in a way that he would easily understand. We started having good chats and I realised he could really do with a visual aid that would help him see and communicate what he was feeling. With the doctor’s appointment coming up, it could make a big difference. I asked him whether he knows when he’s angry. And he said he did. He told me, “Sometimes, if I’m really tired in the morning and mum’s saying come on, we’ve got to get ready for school. Sometimes I’m a little bit angry then, and by the time I rush to school, I’m really angry.” “How do you tell people about that?” I asked him. And he goes, “I don’t like to tell them.” And I go, “Would you be happy to show them?” The next day after school, I showed him some examples of different pictures that we can use to identify our feelings. He easily recognised what happy looks like, what sad looks like, what angry looks like…. And I thought, “Ooh, that’s good,” because with some kids with autism, they struggle with that. And then I talked to him about ways he could identify that emotion for himself and show where he’s at with it. We used different levels as the measure. I explained to him that when he’s down here, at the bottom of the angry scale, it’s really good because that means everything’s normal and he’s not angry at all. But as you go up a step and up a step, the feelings are starting to stronger and it’s like, “Uh-oh what’s happening now?” I asked him to choose pictures of emotions he often has and we made a chart, using the idea of a thermometer, where once the emotion goes up,


the feelings go up. He started recognizing what the emotion was and when it’s at the point of boiling over or calming down. Before long, he was really getting it. We kept high-fiving every time he understood and I’m like, “That’s deadly!” and we’d give each other a high-five. And then as time went on, and he started to recognise his feelings, he started expressing them. He’d say, “Okay, I’m not happy now, I’m feeling quite annoyed with you because you’re asking too many questions.”

changed their life, really.

And I’m like, “Okay, alright. We’ll end today and I’ll come back again another day.”

This story was written from a conversation with Caine’s linker, Amanda

The emotions chart is on his bedroom door now and every night, before he goes to bed, he lets everyone know how he’s feeling. When he wakes up in the morning, he just puts the new emotion on the thermometer to let them know how he’s starting his day. It’s so funny the way it works. If he’s annoyed first thing in the morning, and doesn’t want to talk to anyone, and they’re saying, “Caine, we’re trying to ask you to find your schoolbag?” Or, “What do you want for your lunch?” Or whatever, he’ll just point to his chart and give them a look like “That’s my emotion right now.” He doesn’t even have to say anything. And they go, “Oh, okay we’ll give you some time.” We created another one for him to use at school and the teachers are working with it. He has it right next to him to let the teacher know where he’s at. She doesn’t have to ask him. She just looks at the emotion chart and can say, “Do you want 5-10 minutes in the quiet sensory corner?” Or, “Do you want to go outside and maybe spend 5 minutes with a friend?” And he’ll go, “Yes.” He hasn’t had any fights at school this year so far, he hasn’t even physically harmed himself or anyone else either. The family is happier. It’s


And now, Caine’s received his NDIS funding and all we need to do, is link him to the occupational therapist, and the psychologist, and the social supports. They are all definitely needed and will make a big difference. It’s been amazing to watch. I could talk about this family forever and a day… and I probably will.

Meaningful belonging, true inclusion 61



We’re all connected by a marvellous network offering countless possibilities.




“You need to be naturally curious and human and use what you both already know. If you keep doing it together, then the burden isn’t on one or the other. It’s just a partnership focused on making a change.”

“People say we’re human googles – probably because we’re so connected to our community. We know it well - the services, organizations and groups that are out there.”

“Kem (one of our linkers) had a few ladies who wanted to learn how to fix things and do maintenance work. Originally she tried to link them to the men's shed, but it was one of those sheds that was definitely only for men.” “But she didn't give up there. She spent a lot of time and effort exploring options. Eventually she got Bunnings and a few other community groups involved and now they run a women's workshop to teach basic maintenance skills. It's very much based on what the women want to do and it’s run out of the community centre for anybody to access.” “I met Adrian who was working alongside the men’s shed. He was lobbying council for a concrete pathway around a large park to provide accessibility for all community members. A flash sparked in my head and I remembered a community member who approached us with her idea about a park with a concrete pathway. And then it struck me. How about Adrian talks with this community member and they pool their resources together. An email was sent, their phone numbers exchanged and a new partnership was born!”

“There was this woman who liked the idea of colouring-in but she didn’t want to do it by herself. She wanted a group. Amazingly, I happened to see on my Facebook feed that a group was starting up, very close to where she lived. They were all meeting to do colouring together on Fridays. Bingo! You’ve just got to keep your eye out.” “I met Stephen who had a passion for all things transport. But me? I honestly had zero interest or knowledge. So… where to start? I knew there must be like-minded people out there. And yes, Dr Google to the rescue! I checked out plane spotting and discovered a guide in easy English on how to go about becoming a serious spotter. I then came across the Sydney Airport Aviation Enthusiasts. What a find! I was thrilled and so was Stephen.”



USE YOUR CONNECTIONS “I asked Michael what he really wanted to do. He said ‘I want to work with kids so they don’t end up like me.’ I knew exactly what might help. I called a community mentor who I’d connected with in the past and he was able to take Michael along to a youth program he runs. It was a great opportunity to work with some younger kids and share his experiences. From that moment, everything chnaged. He just flourished.” “When I was linking, I had quite a few people who wanted a relaxing art group for young people. There were quite a few art classes, but nothing where young people could just do art. I was asking around and I eventually came up with a connection to a mum who was a bit of a gun in the community. I knew she would be the one to drive this and get families on board. It took us a while but it comes down to using who you both know, and what you both know. I knew that there was a church group that were looking for new ways to get involved in the wider community. They had retired teachers in their congregation that were quite keen on art and were quite onboard with taking on the group. Eventually it all worked out really well. The Mum and the congregation – and they now run this little art group together.”


Connections can happen anywhere. 65

The fabulous Ms Leah and her big ideas‌


She’s a goer, she’s a doer, she’s a community minded powerhouse: meet the fabulous Ms Leah. From our first meeting, Leah had bubbled with enthusiasm and excitement about finding ways to get more connected to the gardening community on the South Coast. With a fondness for horticulture and years of living in rural Bega with her parents, Leah was obviously going to be an asset to any group. The only question was, where to start? That’s what brought us, one beautiful day, to meet with David, the co-ordinator of Merimbula’s (totally organic) community garden. As David walked his potential volunteer around, he was obviously impressed by her knowledge of plants and horticulture. The garden is vast, overflowing with flowers, fruits and a maze of vegies. Like many organic gardens, it has a wild, rambling look and pesky weeds spring up all along the pathways waiting to be pulled. These weeds caught Leah’s critical attention and she stopped to give them a good looking-over. “I’ll need to bring me bloody Roundup to get rid of these!” she said.

between her paid work. And then she turned that clever, enthusiasm to sharing with community in other ways too. She’s a very talented potter and she had an idea for a pottery segment on Edge FM radio, a local station. I helped her develop an application to the station manager and her ideas and energy won over. Her monthly broadcast has begun and she’s talking with local artists, indigenous potters and connecting people with groups in their own areas. A holiday pottery workshop for Aboriginal kids which embraces our local Aboriginal artists, elders and is inclusive of all of our community is Leah’s next project. And it’s on its way. One of the best things for me as a linker is watching Leah’s confidence to navigate things like planning her radio schedule, juggling her paid working commitments, making appointments to speak to community leaders and overcoming obstacles with ease and grace. She’s incredible. Whenever I see her around town in her big truck, I am always amazed at what a great driver she’s become. A community driver, that is! This story was shared by Kristi, the fabulous Ms Leah’s linker

What? I think David nearly fell over. Roundup in his beautiful organic garden? “Ummm no, we don’t use that here,” he said. “Oh come on…” she grinned. “A little Roundup never bloody hurts!” We all burst into laughter. Soon David was explaining how Leah’s knowledge of gardening would be very much appreciated and helpful to the other, less skilled, volunteers. With many areas of expertise needed, she quickly put her hand up for weeding, harvesting and the market stalls. She has slight mobility and sight issues but she is as strong and fit as an ox, and very talented. She took complete ownership of her new volunteer position immediately, giving two days a week


The sun glistened through the majestic gum leaves As volunteers happily rolled up their sleeves Preparing dishes from food rescued To prepare a feast for some fifty queued The tables were nestled side by side, Their embrace was lengthened very wide The people came to feast and share In a community of belonging and care The fences were not there to see A place where defences are set free




T WAS 2016. I’d been talking to people in our community about what they wanted and there was a common theme. They said they just wanted to meet socially with other people – not only people identifying from a specific group – but a real mixture of people from the wider community. We talked about having a shared meal and I started thinking it could be more than that. It could be a way to create meaningful belonging for all. The idea came to me suddenly one day. I thought, “Lower Your Fences, Lengthen Your Tables. That’s it!” The idea just took off from there. LYF+LYT is a community meal event. It’s a way that we can sit down together and welcome anyone to the table regardless of their circumstances. It’s about celebrating our common humanity and has been well received. People want more. In Eden, there’s a regular Monday community lunch held at the Uniting Church Hall. They have a beautiful community garden and it’s often referred to as The Garden of Eden. Their first LYF+LYT was held on such a lovely day that we decided to move the tables out of the hall where the lunches are usually served. We lined the tables up lengthwise and ate together in the garden. It was wonderful – simple and relaxed. Outside lunches are always good to do when the weather allows. All the food was donated that day and it was low stress with those extra volunteer hands. It was definitely not making a meal “for” but instead, it was creating and eating a meal “with”. I bought a tree, a Lily Pily aptly called Resilience and I gifted it to the church. It was the centrepiece for the event and I had cut out cardboard leaves to hang on the branches. I invited everyone to write about the different things they wanted for the community on each leaf. We had a blue leaf for what they loved about the community and a yellow leaf for what they would like to see less of. It was a great talking point for the lunch. A couple of weeks later, when I came to pick up the leaves, other people had added to it. So the conversation (and feedback) had continued. So far, there have been three events in different locations and each one has reflected the unique strengths and wishes of the community. Why not try holding one yourself?

This story was told by our linker, Beck. On the next page, you can find Beck’s tips for creating your long table!


We want more than inclusion. We want meaningful belonging. We want people to feel like they’re not just included... but embraced. BECK MINEAR


LOWER YOUR FENCES, LENGTHEN YOUR TABLES Helping to create a community of belonging

Beck’s tips on creating a ‘lower your fences, lengthen your tables’ event in your community WHAT IS IT? It’s a community gathering open to everyone, to connect, share ideas and imagine possibilities together. It’s about lowering fences and defences, welcoming community members together and embracing our common humanity. It’s also about treating everyone as equals and creating a common space, where everyone is invited to share a meal and dream for the future. The community drives & directs the event based on their wants, needs and resources.

HOW DO YOU DO IT? Choose a venue – Ideally somewhere outdoors, accessible for all, with a long row of tables joined together. Use what you have available. Get people to bring picnic rugs, fold up tables and chairs. Make it a free event – to maximise participation Share a meal together – You may be able to obtain food donations or join an existing community lunch, or perhaps make it a potluck meal, where everyone brings a plate to share. Better still, cook together as a community. Promote widely – Be creative and utilise community heart and spirit and existing networks to advertise and spread the word at low or no cost.

ON THE DAY Inspire – with messages that help people imagine and dream. Use written and verbal form to share these ideas. If possible, bring a tree such as a Lily Pily (which signifies resilience) to

add to the community dreaming. At the end of the event, the tree is offered to the community and symbolises the planting of ideas that were generated on the day. Connect – At the heart of the lunch is an opportunity to explore people’s thoughts and ideas and possibilities for the future. One of these activities is the conversation tree, using the tree that you brought. Each person responds to questions that are asked relating to community happiness and dreaming. People write their ideas down on cardboard leaves and these are then hung on the tree. You could ask: What would you like your community to do to improve your sense of belonging? What do you love about your community? What would make you feel happier in your community?

WHAT YOU’LL NEED »» An exercise book for people to write ideas »» A sign in book to add people’s contact details »» A tree in a pot e.g. Lily Pily »» Coloured cardboard – One colour per conversation tree question, cut up into small leaves »» A cup for each conversation tree question to hold the leaves »» Hole punch, ball of string, scissors, textas, pens »» Blank cards that can be written on and used in lieu of business cards to share contact details »» Open hearts and minds









The Latte Ladies Sometimes what we need doesn’t exist… until we think it up ourselves. Somebody’s gotta be first, right? “What would you love to do?” As a linker, this is often the first question I ask people when we’re sitting down in a cafe or a library or on a park bench. When I first met Shane she said she didn’t have any interests that needed pursuing. She told me that all she wanted to do was meet friends and go out for coffee. She said she was tired of going to ‘disability groups’ and ‘recovery groups’. She just longed to be a part of something cruisy and natural: something without a label. That’s how Latte Ladies was born. It’s a coffee group for women to come together in one of their local communities - to make friendships and feel the companionship of women.

We found a cafe and started promoting the idea on social media. For many weeks, Shane was the only woman who came. We kept telling her: ‘Be patient, the women will come!’ And they did: Shane was overjoyed. Soon she was getting to know different women and even making plans to go shopping together outside of Latte Ladies hours! It’s great to see her confidence grow as she becomes more comfortable in social situations. We started other Latte Ladies after that and these groups grow or shrink depending on the need. It’s just about creating a space for community to happen. It might go for three months or six or forever – there’s no knowing. And best of all, there’s no labels either! This story was told by Shane’s linker, Julie

Coffee please… skim, decaf ... and hold the labels!


| FAQs | How do I make the first step to reach out?

Can I use these ideas with my family?

‘So what do I do first? How do I find people?’ ‘Well for starters, say hello to someone you don’t know.’ ‘Ok.’ ‘And then see where the conversation leads.’

Sure you can. Try connecting with them in ways that perhaps you haven’t explored before.

How do I think outside the box?

»» One of the best ways is to start the relationship in a public place, out in the community. That way you can both check each other out safely, without diving in too deep.

»» Have a chat with people around you and see what creative possibilities everyone has to offer. »» Ask your community. Be open to many points of view. »» Entice people to share their dreams and then work out ways to make them happen. Small steps are best.

What if I can’t find the right ‘help’ or answer? »» Ask a local – your neighbour perhaps? Or the local librarian – they are usually quite knowledgeable. »» Contact your local community center – many of them have great resources and knowledge of the local area. »» Put an ad in the local paper – or post the question online. »» Have a brainstorm session with friends – more heads are better than one. 74

How do I manage boundaries with a new person?

»» Make a list of DOs and DON’Ts that you both agree to. Write them down and both keep a copy. Let the person know when they can call you and when they cannot.

What’s the best way to bring businesses and other partners on board? »» Have a chat with people around you and see what everyone has to offer and who they know and how involved they want to be. »» Who else might be interested or supportive of what you are trying to achieve? Don’t be afraid to ask people in council, community groups and organisations for suggestions.

| Boundaries, safety and self-care |


for people working in community

e are all humans working together with other humans. The Bill of Rights gives us an outline to help us honour each other’s rights. It’s a good reminder of how we should treat others and how we should expect to be treated by others, as fellow human beings. This is the Bill of Rights: 1. The right to be treated with respect. 2. The right to have and express your own feelings and opinions. 3. The right to be listened to and taken seriously. 4. The right to set your own priorities. 5. The right to say NO without feeling guilty. 6. The right to get what you pay for. 7. The right to make mistakes. 8. The right to choose not to assert yourself.

Boundaries When we work with people in community, especially people who are vulnerable, it can be easy to keep giving and accept behaviour we wouldn't otherwise accept. It can help to reflect on your boundaries and where you need to draw the line in order

to look after yourself. Being clear on your boundaries and communicating them helps others respect your needs. Most importantly AVOID doing FOR someone. Empower them to do for themselves by standing beside them and doing it with them or standing behind them, providing support as they do it themselves.

Safety If you're planning to meet someone you don't know we’d suggest: »» Meet during the day at a public meeting spot that both you and they are comfortable with, remember they don't know you either. »» Let someone know where you will be and estimated time away »» Be aware of your surroundings and potential risks »» End the meeting if either party feel uncomfortable

Remember you are a person too! Nurture yourself as well as others. 75

| Resource links |


f you’d like to get more connected with your neighbours, this organisation has free resources and plenty of ideas. https:// www.neighbourhoodconnect.org.au Would you like to connect people newly arrived to Australia with people already established in their communities? The Welcome Dinner Project connects people, ideas and resources to make this happen. https://welcomedinnerproject.org/ Sidewalk Talk is an American initiative finding a place in Australia. They say “We teach and practice listening in public spaces to heal our lonely and disconnected world. Every moment of genuine connection adds to our wellness.” They offer tips and training to run your own listening group. https://www.sidewalktalksf.com/ Looking for inspiration to make your neighbourhood more connected? Watch “Take a street and build a community: Shani Graham at TEDxPerth” https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=C1WSkXWSJac Ask ‘Izzy’ to help find services for practical and immediate help on issues such as health, housing, food, domestic and family violence, money help, legal, etc. https://askizzy.org.au/


Are you working with individuals and would like to know how to support them in the way they wish to be supported? Helen Sanderson has developed several tools that really focus on helping a person explain what works best for them. http://helensandersonassociates. co.uk/person-centred-practice/personcentred-thinking-tools/ Wanting to develop an aspect of your community with your community? Bank of IDEAS has examples, insights and many tools to help you. https://bankofideas.com.au/ A Community Development Resource pack created by Ability Links NSW for ideas and further resources. https://www.abilitylinksnsw.org.au/ resources.html Your local community centre can be a good resource to tap into for support, funding ideas, food and money help, and other activities. This link is the peak body for community centres. https://www.lcsansw.org.au/ Looking for funding? Consider crowdfunding. There are many platforms out there, all targeted towards different causes and charging different fee structures so it's worth doing some research into which one suits your needs. This is a good starting point. http://www.crowdfundit.com.au/2012/12/18/ crowdfunding-platforms-in-australian-andnew-zealand/

| The 5 ways to better connections |














Our fabulous linkers



| Acknowledgments |


niting Ability Links would like to thank the people and communities that we have worked with for their generosity in sharing their knowledge and experiences with us. We have been enriched by having the opportunity to get to know you and to hear your stories. We are truly privileged to be able to share your stories with others. Thank you linkers and the whole team for openly sharing your learnings and experiences. We appreciate your passion and enthusiasm for our stories and for your help in bringing this book together. Your reflections and stories show the power of simple but genuine, human connections and your insights will be of value to all readers. This book would not have happened without the energy of our Program Manager, Ric Bless and his unwavering belief in the potential of every human. Ric was determined to get our linker model into the hands (and hearts) of the community – and he did! Thanks also to others on our team who helped advise and develop this

book and resources. We are especially grateful to Anna, Tania, Beck, John, Sal and Miriam. Uniting Ability Links would like to thank Moya Sayer-Jones and the team at Only Human Stories for the work they have put into this project. Moya, your deep understanding of what we do, combined with your creativity, passion and skill has produced a wonderful collection of stories and anecdotes that well reflect what we have learnt from the people and communities we work with. We would also like to acknowledge Only Human designer Clive Jones for his fabulous design work, photographer Dean Golja for his beautiful photos, Tennyson Nobel for his creative and spirited cartoons, and Celine Massa for her project management.

Kat Lindberg Uniting Ability Links Project Co-ordinator

Thank you to Kat Lindberg, Uniting Ability Links Project Co‑ordinator, for leading this project. Kat’s passion for grassroots community development and her quiet, insistent purpose has informed all elements of this inspiring collection. Ric Bless Uniting Ability Links, Program Manager


| Contacts | Uniting Ability Links www.facebook.com/UnitingAbilityLinks Ability Links NSW www.abilitylinksnsw.org.au www.facebook.com/AbilityLinksNewSouthWales Uniting www.uniting.org www.facebook.com/UnitingAbilityLinks

Phone: 1800 864 846

Ability Links is a program that aims to bring true inclusion and meaningful belonging to communities. It offers aspirational, person-centred and flexible support to people with a disability, their families and carers. In the 5 years of this program, Uniting Ability Links has made incredible stories everyday with our linkers using their connections, inventiveness and knowledge to bring choice and new opportunities to the communities we have worked with. We have worked to disrupt the old story of acceptance or tolerance of people with a disability and generate a new story. This new story is one where inclusion is nothing unusual but simply the norm. With Open Hearts follows our first collection, With Open Arms. Both books celebrate the people, communities and organisations who believe in this new story too.


…it’s only human