While many of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have had disastrous, tragic consequences across the world, the pandemic has also been a catalyst for some positive change. In regional rural and remote Australia, it has necessitated creativity and innovation in response to service delivery challenges, particularly at the community wellbeing level.
In country South Australia, Centacare Catholic Country SA delivers social services across regional, rural and remote communities spanning a footprint of some 900,000 square kilometres. These services include relationship counselling, financial capability and wellbeing services, support for people experiencing domestic and family violence; family dispute resolution; suicide prevention, intervention and post-vention services; along with a range of services to support children and young people in out of home care.
One of the major positive influences on our service delivery is our presence as an embedded, ‘local’ service agency. We have offices in six communities across country SA and operate from 11 sites. For the most part, our staff live where they work, and work where they live, so local ‘connections’ are a fundamental part of service delivery.
Our service provision also includes outreach to remote communities through both face-to-face and via technology. We also provide community wellbeing and support activities such as hosting or participating in themed community events like Families Week, NAIDOC Week and Anti-Poverty Week.
During the lockdown and isolation phases of the pandemic, maintaining connections with our communities, and particularly those outreach communities we service was vital. When we couldn’t visit, we had to find other ways to connect to maintain the levels of trust that are required to deliver services – particularly those that are relative to child protection and support for families experiencing relationship issues.
COVID-19 created circumstances that meant our staff had to think creatively, so we could continue to operate effectively. We determined that despite the lockdown circumstances, we needed to find a way to celebrate ‘Families Week’ (May 2020). Pre-COVID-19, each of our offices would conduct community activities across the week that involved family activities, such as ‘party in the park,’ outdoor screening of family-friendly movies, and community wellbeing ‘fairs’ with other service providers that feature ‘come and try’ wellbeing supports.
In 2020, none of that was possible. Instead, our staff decided to create and host an online event, supported by ‘family packs’ that could be collected from our offices or distributed via various means, including post and personal delivery via community connections. Each pack contained activities that could be undertaken as a family, including healthy recipes to support involving children and young people in cooking activities; games and puzzles; instructions and resources for preparing a time-capsule; and other craft activities.
Families were invited and encouraged to share their experiences and their creations via online platforms and through photo-sharing, which our staff set up at various times during the week. The event was successful, with many families participating. Whilst this was a great outcome, our staff also experienced first-hand, the value in thinking differently.
Service delivery across the vastness of regional, rural and remote Australia requires a different skillset to metropolitan service delivery and we specifically train staff to acquire this skillset, such as how to drive on rural roads; using local knowledge to maximise scarce resources; and multi-skilling staff to work across programs. What we learned through the pandemic, is that ‘mindset’ is equally important to ‘skillset’ in service delivery.
Being forced to think differently meant that our staff were freed from the usual parameters that govern our thinking, eg. "we can offer events in those communities where we have infrastructure" to "that option is not available, so what can we do?" It took a paradigm shift to think differently about how we can use what is available to us differently. While we readily use technology platforms for service delivery and connecting our staff across our vast distances, we had never been forced to expand our thinking about other uses for available technologies. It was a valuable lesson, and one that we will take into the future, beyond the pandemic.