Retirement didn’t sit well with Corrimal’s Dame Beverley Joy Kerr. For two decades, she had worked as a case officer in child protection for the Department of Community Services (DoCS) and worked with many at-risk children and parents experiencing homelessness, mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions and disabilities.
She had seen too much need to hang her hat.
“We would have women with teenage boys, or fathers with young girls, or sometimes whole families who were homeless come in and we didn’t have facilities to place them in together. I’d have to tell them, ‘We can put you in a refuge, but we would have to put your child into foster care’ and invariably they’d rather sleep in their car or on the streets than be separated from their children,” she says.
“That’s not the kind of thing that ever leaves you.”
A rich and fruitful volunteering journey began with disability support service The Cram Foundation in Wollongong, but before long she was volunteering for an organisation that had long held a particular interest for her – St Vincent de Paul Society.
Starting as president of the Regional Council Wollongong, today Dame Beverley is St Vincent de Paul Society’s NSW vice-president for Special Works, with 72 special works across NSW in her remit. This includes facilities for people experiencing drug and alcohol addiction, family and domestic violence, homelessness and disability.
Notably, she’s also a founding director of Amelie Housing, which provides appropriate, secure and affordable rental housing and works to create socially inclusive neighbourhoods.
The work helps satisfy a seemingly unquenchable thirst for social justice and helping people who are in trouble or on the margins, and there have been many milestones along the way.
One was securing about half of the $16 million in funding needed to build the Freeman House in Armidale – a residential and inpatient alcohol and other drug treatment for adults experiencing substance-related harm and dependency.
But another project in particular brings Dame Beverley a great deal of joy. In 2010, the society opened a facility catering for women with boys, men with children and families and single women experiencing homelessness, for which Dame Beverley helped secure millions in funding.
“Having seen what I’ve seen, I think that was the best thing the society has ever established – this building to house these people so that families could stay together,” she says.
“These are the kind of projects I get to be a part of with St Vincent de Paul, and there are no words to describe how special that is.”
Less than a year after receiving a papal knighthood under the Order of St Gregory the Great for her volunteer work, Dame Beverley became a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her service to the community on the Australia Day 2024 Honours List. While suitably humbled, the accolades are not something she’s chasing.
“Helping people and seeing the change in their lives you can make – that’s the real reward,” she says.
It’s something the world needs more than ever.