CareWays Community has had the same basic aim since it started 30 years ago as Dapto Neighbourhood Centre, but as times have changed, so too have its services and programs.
CareWays manages Koonawarra, Horsley and Thirroul Community Centres and operates programs and services at Dapto’s Ribbonwood Centre.
Community is at the heart of everything the organisation does, catering for all ages from preschoolers to seniors and aged care.
It operates playgroups and youth drop-in sessions, young men’s and women’s programs, cultural arts programs as well as social craft groups and computer classes.
The popular free coffee and catch-up sessions at the Ribbonwood Centre allow residents to access food parcels, and get information or referrals to other services.
For the next few months, activities and programs usually held at the Koonawarra centre have been transferred to Dapto or Horsley while the centre is closed for the roof to be replaced.
CareWays works closely with local primary and high schools to help fill the gap between education and life skills, adapting programs to reflect changes in society.
It has been running a young women’s program for about eight years and recently added a young men’s program.
Aboriginal community program officer Brendan Newton said the young men’s program for Year 8 boys from Kanahooka and Dapto high schools helps to support them as they transition from teenagers to adults.
“It’s an eight-week program that educates teenagers on mental health, drugs and alcohol and sexual health,” Brendan said.
“We get the police in to talk to them to help break down the barriers, we do job interviews, teach resume writing skills and cover other topics.
“It’s a very tough time of their life. We did start off the program with Year 9, but we noticed that they’d already started to experiment with going to parties, so we reduced the age to try and reach out to them before they started experimenting with sexual life, parties, alcohol and other drugs.
“Hopefully we’re giving them the skills they need to go down the correct pathway in life.”
Community hub team leader Haley Williamson said the young women’s program also featured guest speakers from community organisations and specialities so the girls can learn what is available to them and feel more comfortable if they need to access those in the future.
“It’s been great to be able to build relationships with the students and see them coming along, and teaching them some life skills,” she said.
“We talk to them and say look, you’ve come in here and you’ve done programs, you’ve met us, so if you’re in trouble after school, or if there’s something wrong, we’re going to be here for you. It’s a safe place for them.”
Before the Koonawarra Community Centre temporarily closed, local primary and high school children, playgroups, the Aboriginal community, Indigenous artists and staff created a mural on an underpass near the centre.
Wollongong City Council, which owns the centre, supplied funding for the project.
Brendan worked with local elders to develop the mural, which tells the Buriburi dreaming story about how the Wadi Wadi people and Dharawal nation came to be.
It features a four-metre whale and a starfish – the two main characters in the dreaming story – Lake Illawarra and Windang Island, the Illawarra escarpment with Mt Keira and Mt Kembla and the Koonawarra of today.
The centre has become well-known for its popular Reconciliation Walk held each May and the large NAIDOC Week celebrations in July.
“Now that we have the mural in place, I’d love to make that a part of the journey for the Reconciliation Walk so the kids of the area who weren’t involved in the project also get to learn about the local stories – it’s added another element to the walk,” Brendan said.