What does a Neighbourhood House do when the neighbours are in lockdown?

Jacqui van Heerden

This is a question that has been playing on my mind lately.

Kensington Neighbourhood House is “a place to meet, share information, develop skills and break down isolation and other community barriers.” So, what happens when the entire community is isolating? How do we support people when we have to close our doors? How do we follow our mission while keeping our community safe?

Rather than crawling back under our doonas (and believe me, that is a very tempting option), the team here at KNH has risen to the occasion and come up with ways to provide the support our community needs.

Some things have moved online. The weekly “Kensingers” community choir and our Study Support Program can switch from face-to-face to Zoom relatively easily. The Kensington Sister Circle – a facilitated peer support group for local African-Australian women – has also been able to move online.

For other programs, it’s not that easy. Many of our adult English class students do not have the digital literacy or the data plans to cope with online learning. To overcome this barrier, our intrepid EAL teacher prepares work for students every week and either emails it or posts it out along with a reply-paid envelope. She then follows up with individual phone conversations every single week. These calls help with language learning but are also a wellbeing check – making sure people are okay, offering support if they’re not. Our letter box is full of returned homework each day. Not a single student has left class.

Last month, we had to close our Morning Childcare Program to all but the children of authorised workers. This was a blow. The sound of children playing, singing, laughing, even the odd tantrum, helped our house feel alive during previous lockdowns. It’s terribly quiet now. To help support families, our Early Childhood Educators have recorded stories and songs on YouTube and are providing activity packs each week for children to collect. Kite-making supplies, playdough, a photo “treasure hunt” along McCracken St. Little things to stay connected with our littlest participants.

In the office, our printer, scanner and photocopier are working overtime. Do you know how hard it is to get things printed when you don’t have the equipment at home and the libraries and Officeworks are shut? Just as we did last year, we offer a “click and collect” printing service to the community. People email their documents and we print them out and put them on the verandah for collection. VCE practice exams, homework, resumes, job applications, authorised worker permits, the list goes on. In 2020, we printed more than 3100 pages for the community. I wonder how many it will be this year?

Sometimes it all seems a bit too hard. That’s when we need to call on others. Feeling daunted by the idea of organising a remote afternoon tea for Adult Learners’ Week, our education coordinator reached out to the Kensington Good Karma Network for help with baking. Well! Before you could say “caramel slice”, she was inundated with offers. As a result, we were able to provide more than 600 packs of beautiful baked treats to our adult students, our Wednesday Seniors group and our Study Support families. Way to go K-Town!

Continuing the community generosity is the McCracken Street Food Share Pantry. This “give what you can, take what you need” pantry is run by a group of amazing volunteers from our front verandah. Dozens of people visit every day to donate supplies and to collect much needed food. We’re currently providing more than 500 items a week to people in need. The most requested item? Coffee! It’s inner-city Melbourne after all.

Another volunteer program – Conversations Over The Front Fence – is making sure that isolated community members receive regular phone calls. Sometimes just one person checking in for a chat can make all the difference.

It’s by no means perfect. And it’s not enough. We are desperate to welcome people back to “our house” again. But for now, the daily efforts of our staff and our community members remind me that people are kind, generous and basically amazing.

Want to help?

Be a good neighbour. Say hello to others in your street whenever you get the chance. Small human connections mean a lot, particularly for people who are living alone.

Donate supplies to the McCracken Street Food Share Pantry when you’re out for your daily exercise. Top 10 items are pictured here, but all non-perishable food is welcome. Deliver to 89 McCracken St, Kensington, 9am to 5pm week days.

Volunteer with the pantry. The team needs volunteers to help out with restocking and collecting supplies on mornings Monday to Friday. Contact: [email protected] for more information •

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