‘People who work here share a passion and commitment to improving peoples’ lives.’
Deeply embedded in the far north community, Somerville is spread across three sites – Darwin, Palmerston (a satellite city of Darwin) and Katherine (about 370 km south of Darwin) – and is a not-for-profit community service organisation with strong constitutional links to the Uniting Church as an agency of UnitingCare. It is unique to the Northern Territory and started operations in 1965 with an aim to improve the dignity and quality of life of people affected by social and economic disadvantage.
The diverse backgrounds of those working at the new Palmerston Community Centre mirror Darwin’s own diversity. Kerry herself was born, raised and educated in South Africa.
Kerry said she thrived in Somerville’s team environment, and that there was something special about its level of connectedness.
‘At heart we all want to serve our clients, to help them find an even keel personally, financially and within their family.
‘My personal passion is in creating safety and healing for children so they can build resilient futures.’
Kerry said Palmerston Community Centre offered a ‘wrap-around’ service, with one organisation working under one roof providing therapeutic, financial and family services for the vulnerable and disadvantaged population living in the local and surrounding communities.
Kerry’s chief role at Palmerston is working as manager of Somerville’s Family Services.
‘I coordinate, support and supervise a team of 13 workers across all three of our sites. Their qualifications cover the fields of social work, psychology, counselling and community work.
‘A vital part of my work as manager is supporting those who support our clients. I value being able to promote a healthy work and life balance.’
Kerry said that some of the major difficulties impacting the local communities included substance misuse, domestic violence, homelessness and rising youth crime.
‘In response, we provide holistic case-management and counselling, we have a no-wrong-door approach, and our services are free.’
A specific example is the Intensive Family Preservation Service (IFPS), administered by Anya Soares, a Family Services Coordinator and Counsellor.
‘We manage this program with Territory Families. It’s designed to work with families in crisis whose children are at risk of removal and placement. We work with families to help prevent their children leaving.
‘We offer parenting support, case management and family counselling.’
The IFPS is only part of Anya’s workload. She also supervises six other workers and counsellors and supports the community accommodation service for people at risk of becoming homeless or looking for rent assistance.
‘The Northern Territory traditionally has the highest rate of homelessness in Australia,’ Anya said. ‘And we’re seeing more and more families needing help.’
She said Somerville also runs transitional housing for up to five families.
‘Transitional housing is medium term, supported for up to four months. It revolves around devising an exit plan for the families – which includes a savings and general budget plan, an employment plan, a sustainable accommodation plan – from intensive support and case management.’
The Manager for Financial Services and Special Projects Allison O’Connor emphasised that Palmerston Community Centre was a one-stop shop.
‘We work very closely with the Family Services team,’ Allison said.
‘Financial stress is often an indicator of other issues, such as family breakdown, mental illness, domestic violence, financial abuse or gambling.’
Allison said problem gambling is a significant issue in the Northern Territory after the government increased the cap on the number of gaming machines each venue could have.
‘But people don’t present due to recognising they have a gambling problem; they come in because they have issues caused by their gambling.’
One of the most important things financial counsellors do for clients is advocate on their behalf with creditors.
‘We establish manageable payment options and take the pressure off clients having to deal with creditors themselves.
‘For their part, creditors generally like it when we become involved because it means action is being taken benefitting both parties.’
‘There is an increasing demand for our services. People have more and more debt. Credit is easily available. Financial literacy needs to be included in the school curriculum so people recognise the traps laid for them.’
Financial Services Coordinator Vicki Borzi agreed a lack of financial literacy was a significant problem.
‘While many of our clients are on pensions or receiving some other government allowance, many clients are professionals. The statistics are fairly evenly distributed across income and education levels.
‘Part of my job is to change peoples’ mindset about money, and by giving them the skills that empower them to solve their own problems and make better financial choices going forward.
‘I’ve seen many in construction work, for example, who have no job when the Wet Season sets in and they haven’t put any money aside.’
Allison said people on low incomes are often trapped by rent-to-buy contracts and payday lenders, when something like a refrigerator costing $800 in the shop ends up costing someone at least $3200.
‘The No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS) is run in partnership with the National Australia Bank and Good Shepard Microfinance. Somerville provides NILS for a broad range of household items. We loan up to $1500.
‘NILS is a safe, affordable alternative to payday loans and the rent-to-buy schemes.’
Allison said Somerville also offered emergency relief for utility bills.
‘The money covers power and water for those who find themselves unable to pay their utilities. Given the climate in the Northern Territory many people experience “bill shock” after receiving their power bill during the wet season.’
Vicki said when clients are empowered to sort out their own financial problems they walk out with their heads high.
Anya said, ‘You always want to see positive outcomes, for peoples’ lives to change course and improve. It’s amazing to watch people grow and adapt in society.
‘It’s challenging work, often difficult, especially when some clients return with the same or similar problems. Their lives are cyclic, but sometimes what’s important is just to be understanding and give what support you can.’
Vicki knows if her clients do not turn things around financially, it can affect their health, creating anxiety and stress that leads to illness; she said it was not unusual to receive referrals from GPs.
‘In fact, one of the important functions of my job is identifying clients who need other kinds of counselling: family counselling, for example.’
With Family Counselling, Vicki helped develop the Step Forward Program for those in prison.
‘We take the program into the prisons. The program teaches prisoners basic life skills, and three of the eight modules deal with money, budgeting and saving. It helps fill a gap in their knowledge about how money actually works.’
But for all their good and important work, funding is precarious.
‘We limp along,’ said Vicki.
Kerry agreed. ‘To affect greater social change we need to advocate for better long-term government support to alleviate problems instead of taking a Band-Aid approach at the crisis end of the continuum.
‘Early intervention and prevention requires long-term commitment, financial support and a good hard look at what is being done in the sector.’
She said the community services sector in the Northern Territory collaborate with one another, but all are experiencing stretched resources and overfull caseloads.
But for all that Kerry thinks she and her colleagues are blessed working for a great organisation like Somerville.
‘We call ourselves “Somervillians”,’ Kerry said with pride.
(Main photograph: from left, Somerville Community Services' Vicki Borzi, Kerry Boswell, Allison O'Connor and Anya Soares)