Richard Allen can thank his late wife for the gentle nudge she gave him in 2012 to answer an ad calling for men interested in forming a Men’s Shed group at the Mt Keira Scout Camp.
The former naval mechanical engineering technical officer responded, and soon became the group’s inaugural president.
“That responsibility, together with the support of the other chaps, saved my sanity when six years later, in 2017, my wife, Maureen, passed away,” Richard recalls.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Men’s Shed movement, which has enriched the lives of thousands of men like Richard.
It originated in 1993 in South Australia as an activities centre for elderly men.
It now encompasses more than 2500 branches in 12 countries.
The Australian Men’s Shed Association is the peak body governing 1297 men’s, women’s and community sheds, and that female membership is likely to grow.
The organisation’s pillars are friendship and purpose, with every shed expected to make or produce something that can generate income to support its existence, but that is where the Mt Keira Scout Camp Men’s Shed has a point of difference.
“Throughout Australia you’ll find Men’s Sheds making a range of things like toys, jewellery, furniture or even growing produce to sell, like the one in Wagga Wagga, to pay for their costs,” says Richard.
“The arrangement we have, however, involves maintaining the scout camp property with electrical, carpentry, plumbing and general handyman work, which I believe is the only one which operates this way in Australia.”
Twenty members make up the Mt Keira Scout Camp Men’s Shed, with 12 regular attendees aged in the early 60s to early 80s, and most are capable of work that covers a range of skills.
“Over the years, we have installed new lighting, fixed leaks and roofs, made and installed flyscreens, replaced doorframes, built retaining walls and done some concreting of paths as well as installed wheelchair access to some of the buildings, and even constructed safety rails along the paths,” says Richard.
“A recent estimate shows if we charged for the work we do around the camp it would amount to about $100,000 annually.”
The camaraderie grows organically while sharing stories over tea breaks and lunches in the camp kitchen area, while a former equipment shed has been cleared to suit their purpose.
Although the movement welcomes men of any age over 18, the most common profile is retirees.
It seems the old joke about men being sent there by exasperated wives is true in many cases.
“What usually happens when couples retire at the same time is that the wife suddenly realises, ‘Oh my God, I’ve now got him every day’,” Richard says with a laugh.
But the benefits go well beyond maintaining domestic relationship harmony.
“I think it’s accepted that men often don’t want to talk about personal issues, but in an environment like this it’s amazing how much men will open up on topics like health and grief,” says Richard.
“They don’t seem to talk about mental health so much but I think just being there helps their mental health.
“I know in my case when I was grieving, the other men were great sounding boards for any topic you wanted to talk about.
“It goes without saying that trust is important and there’s an unwritten rule that what is discussed in the shed, stays in the shed.”
Looking to the future, Richard believes the movement will include women in a wider capacity, but not necessarily blended.
“I went to a regional meeting about 18 months ago in Wollongong that included all the Men’s Sheds in our region and it was a topic of discussion,” he says.
“There was consensus, apart from one shed, that there was no strong objection to having women in a Men’s Shed environment if they were held on a separate day.
“And if they wanted a few men to supervise, that was also not a problem.”
For more information on Mt Keira Scout Camp Men’s Shed, call Richard on 0490 063 178.