Ash Castro is determined that Warrawong Community Centre’s last Christmas is going to be one the community will long remember.
The centre will be demolished next year and services relocated while a new combined library and community centre is built on the site.
Ash is the manager of not-for-profit Warrawong Residents Forum (WRF), which has operated out of the centre for more than 30 years.
Ash said the organisation was close to finalising a location for the temporary centre and ensuring all the current services and programs will continue after the centre closes in March 2024.
Established by a group of locals who were frustrated by the lack of support and services in the area, WRF initially delivered programs and resources for the community.
But over the years it has become a trusted, safe and reliable place for people seeking emergency help for essential food supplies, paying utility, rent and mortgage bills and accessing medical, legal and other vital support services.
WRF started serving lunches to the community in 2003, and volunteers now run the lunches three days a week. It operates a weekly food hub both at Warrawong and at Bundaleer Community Centres, provides takeaway meals for those unable to cook at home and supplies emergency food parcels for families unable to afford groceries.
In October alone, more than 1800 people accessed a food service.
“We’ve fallen into the emergency relief space. We get a lot of complexity walking in the doors. They’ve built trust with us because they’ve come to something like the lunch for a meal out of need, but we’ve sat with them, gotten to know them and built a relationship with a bit of trust,” Ash said.
“And then two or three visits later, they might say, ‘hey this is going on for me as well’, and we’re able to step in with treatment plans for mental health or referral to other systems like Legal Aid. We’re often the first door that they walk through and feel safe enough to then ask for help.”
Ash recalls an extended family who turned to WTF for help.
“The grandparents had been working their entire lives, and had retired, but then their daughter and two children had to move in with them in a very small apartment. The man returned to work to earn money but was injured and needed surgery.
“So none of the adults were able to work, one of the children had complex needs and they’ve fallen below the poverty line.
“They came to us and said ‘I’ve never needed help, I’ve worked my entire life’, but that’s the face of the crisis we’re dealing with now.”
Last year, Ash started a service hub each Thursday at the centre, attended by mental health and homeless services, Legal Aid, Centrelink and Service NSW.
“It was jam-packed and really busy when it started and then this year we’ve seen a very different trickle of people coming in. The recent feedback has been that people have found they’re not in that state of urgency, but they know the resources are there, every Thursday without fail.”
Ash also created a community survey – Voice of Warrawong (VOW) – which focused on community services infrastructure, areas of strength and improvement.
Over half of the 150 respondents commented on the importance of WRF’s food hub and community lunch program, and 73 per cent said they had run out of food in the past 12 months and were unable to afford to buy more.
A VOW statement was developed from the responses and has become a petition supporting WRF and requesting additional funding for more staff and services.
“WRF’s food programs such as the Food Hubs and Community Lunch help me, my family and people I know every week not to go hungry,” the statement said in part.
This Christmas, Ash has increased the number of Christmas hampers from 150 to 200 to cater for the extra demand and is hoping for generous donations. The hampers also help households to get through the holiday period when the centre is closed.
As well as food items (for example, milk, custard, pasta, rice, canned goods, candy canes, Christmas cards, biscuits, cereal, sauces, tinned ham/tuna), Ash is asking for donations of gifts for children aged up to 16, or financial donations to help make up any shortfalls.
Volunteers are needed to help collect and deliver items, pack hampers and wrap gifts.
“Last year, we managed to have a gift for all the kids – they all walked out with something, with massive smiles on their faces. Some of them had never had a gift before,” Ash said.
Ash has a couple of plans to make sure the last Christmas at the centre will be a “banger” and create memories to take to the next location.
“There’ll be a lot of celebration, a lot of laughs and Christmas music on a loop, but you know there’s also been a lot of grief in the community this year, so there will also be some time to mourn and respect the losses.”
Ash says some may feel sad about losing the centre that has provided such a safe haven for many years, but he is confident of a strong future for both residents and the centre.
“Our new space might be temporary, but it’s still our home. Much like the community is transient and moving between places, we will too. They’re resilient, they’ve managed, so we can manage too.”
For more information on hamper donations or fundraising ideas, email Ash, or phone 4275 1875. The centre is located at 9 Greene St, Warrawong.