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Thursday, 08 February 2018 18:18

Sr Lucy reflects on 'special privilege' of working with those on the margins

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0218SrLucyvanKesselPBVM 150By Sr Lucy van Kessel PVBM

Open Hearts, Bold Strides" is the tag line of Ruah Community Services. It would suit any of our religious congregations today. I was a Presentation Sister working with the Daughters of Charity in a nongovernment organisation — paid by the government — and doing "Nano" work. Our Presentation founder, Nano Nagle, would have felt right at home here!

Recently, and rather regretfully, I finished work with Ruah Community Services, which is a not-for-profit organisation in Western Australia committed to working alongside people living in poverty and on the margins. Ruah provides meal services, mental health support, assistance in moving from the street to a home, transitioning from prison, dealing with domestic violence, support for aboriginal women and those likely to lose their tenancy, and many other support services.

I have worked in providing mental health support to individual clients, managing mental health teams, supervising psychologist registrars and directing workforce development for the organisation. It has been a privilege over 25 years to work with 200 diverse lay staff who listen, engage, plan, provide hope and attend to the basic needs of those receiving the service.

Employees generally live out the meaning of "Ruah," a Hebrew word meaning breath, spirit of life, wind. Ruah has constantly sought ways to assist those most in need. The service began with the Daughters of Charity Sisters providing a refuge for women and children and a soup kitchen for street people. It has expanded its capacity to meet many more needs today.

Anne was an aboriginal mother who lived on the streets of Perth for more than 10 years. We, Presentation Sisters, provided her with short-term housing, while Ruah found more permanent accommodation for Anne and her son.

She described living on the streets as "dangerous, because you never know what might happen". She was often ill and spent the day trying to find a safe place, going to Ruah Center in the morning for a shower and something to eat, sitting around during the day and then looking again for somewhere "safe" to spend the night.

Anne was helped to move into and maintain a home. She was grateful to Ruah for support in this journey.

In the 1990s, workers and clients regularly prayed together and shared a quiet prayer room. The values of respect, creativity, integrity, partnership and grassroots were actively lived in client work. Clients assisted in writing the foundation policies for mental health services and sat in on interview panels for new workers. They truly collaborated in creating services where each individual was accepted just as they were.

Inspirational leadership was demonstrated in the vision, creativity, inclusivity and genuine care of clients and workers. Ruah's strengths included setting clear parameters for work, establishing teams for all services, regularly supervising workers, practicing consultation and communication at all levels, seeing a need and responding, recognising and working on the "shadow," and encouraging a journey of inclusive spirituality.

Ruah was well ahead of its time in seeing emerging needs and addressing these in practical ways. For example: creating recreation programs for people in psychiatric hostels where there was nothing to do; introducing recovery and the WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) to Western Australia; providing mental health services to Aboriginal people; and providing a refuge for women in domestic violence, long before these needs were generally recognised.

Ruah is a great model for us in religious life today. Ruah management shared all its training modules, information and experience generously as it networked with other agencies in developing partnerships to benefit others. For example, "Fifty Lives, Fifty Homes" required the coordination by Ruah of more than 20 government and nongovernment organisations in assisting homeless people to find and maintain housing.

It was a special privilege to work with clients, to receive their trust as I heard individual stories, to experience their beautiful acceptance of my mistakes as I tried to problem-solve for them, and in the process learned so much from them.

In transitioning to a new ministry, I leave with deep gratitude for being part of an organisation with an expansive vision and passion for social justice.

The full version of this story was first published by Global Sisters Report.

PHOTO by Jamie O'Brien/eRecord, Perth