TUMULTUOUS times started in December for Portland’s largest disability provider, Kyeema Support Services, however the organisation remains relatively unscathed and continues to grow its client base.
That is what Kyeema board chairperson Cathi Bawden told attendees at the not-for-profit service’s online annual meeting recently.
Ms Bawden stepped into the role of chairperson after long-serving chairwoman Kathleen Dixon sadly died unexpectedly in December.
Ms Dixon had been a Kyeema director for 14 years, including her past six years as their chairperson, and was greatly missed, she added.
During the 2019-20 financial year participant numbers at Kyeema’s programs – including supported employment services - increased to 166, up from 142 in 2018-19; staffing also jumped from 82 to 93 year-on-year.
Service chief executive Julie Amor said Kyeema had experienced an 85% growth in participant numbers in less than three years due to the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in the region.
“This growth was an extraordinary challenge for a small organisation,” she said, noting that people choosing to use Kyeema’s services had been a tribute to the managers and team leaders that had maintained a focus on the needs of clients and the employment of quality staff to support them.
Kyeema moved its support coordination services to a refurbished office space at Portland’s Pioneer Plaza this month to ensure it met the NDIS’s conflict of interest standards, Kyeema support coordinator Heather Marnell noted.
At the moment the service’s three coordinators provide services to 48 NDIS participants aged from 4 to 60 years old; seven families have more than one family member supported by the NDIS.
The coordinators had developed a network of health professionals and support services and agencies they could approach to deliver services, and some of Kyeema’s clients had gained home modifications, long-term housing or new electric wheelchairs as a result of their joint work.
“Our team uses a mix of supports to increase participants’ capacity to maintain relationships, manage service delivery, live more independently and be included in our community,” Ms Marnell added.
Ms Amor said they were grateful the government’s JobKeeper payments had been “available to keep our workforce intact” since March.
“We are (also) grateful for the understanding from those who have been inconvenienced and for those who stepped up to do other tasks that were not part of their job descriptions such as painting and cleaning; the Lalor St offices have had quite a facelift,” she said.
During the forced shut-down of programs such as the day program 70 staff completed refresher and upskill training online, learning about bushfire safety, healthy bodies, assisting clients with medication and infection control, mental health first aid as well as Aboriginal cultural awareness and wood workshop skills.
Ms Amor said it hadn’t been all smooth sailing during the pandemic, though: at the beginning people in the disability sector feel like they were “an invisible part of society.”
“It took many weeks before state or federal government departments offered advice specific to people with disabilities, so Kyeema and others across the sector figured it out as best we could on the run.
“We classified every participant so that we knew who needed support - to the last worker standing - and who could do without it for a time. In this we considered physical capacity, mental health and family wellbeing.
“Plans were then created to check in on people regularly and offer support in whatever fashion guidelines allowed.”
Ms Amor said digital communication had been a useful means for many clients to stay connected when they were physically separated, and could be continued to some degree into the future.
Successful examples included the Find Your Voice choir’s music sessions and some advocacy sessions online, and the shift of the autism support group Autism Hangout Portland to fortnightly group video call (Zoom) catch-ups.
“Working from home is highly productive and track pants are no barrier to professionalism,” she added.
COVID-19 did not impact significantly on the operation of Kyeema’s three supported employment services Windward Industries and Green Fingers Gardening Service, and Seawinds Nursery actually experienced a large increase in plant sales as people decided to get into their own gardens more.
Ms Bawden paid further tribute to Ms Dixon.
“Kathleen was a key part of the fabric of Kyeema. Her natural good humour, wisdom, experience and enthusiasm made her a great asset to the direction and performance of our board and Kyeema,” Ms Bawden said.
Ms Dixon had played an important role in getting the plans for two independent living houses on Palmer St, Portland, underway, she added, and the completion of the houses would be a fitting homage to Ms Dixon.
The service achieved an operating profit of $563,000 in 2019-20, up from $135,000 in 2018-19.
They hope a plant sale to be held at Seawinds next month will raise significant funds for the organisation after Kyeema was forced to cancel its popular annual on-site spring sale.