Derrimut YMCA Early Learning Centre: Helping a community in crisis

POST OutdoorFUN Derrimut&Cranbourne

Pictured: Children playing at Derrimut YMCA Early Learning Centre. 

YMCA centres are more than just physical buildings and services, they are also community hubs which aim to meet the needs of each individual community. When a suburb or town is struggling, the Y can provide a safe space and connection to help, with leaders and staff compassionately working behind the scenes.

Derrimut has recently been highlighted as one of the 10 most vulnerable communities in Victoria. It’s a place with high rates of people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, drug abuse and child neglect. It’s also a place of polar differences; where $1.2 million mansions and commission houses are neighbours.

Derrimut YMCA Early Learning Centre has 173 places for sessional kindergarten, and is a safe and supportive space to educate and care for local children. However, this inequality and adversity is unfortunately too often seen within the centre. 

Derrimut YMCA Early Learning Centre Manager Shea Quirk, who has worked at the centre for two years was confronted with a community in crisis. While nearby Truganina YMCA Early Learning Centre would need to contact support services once a year, Derrimut had a week where assistance from external services were needed every single day. Shea has also heard many heartbreaking stories of domestic violence and family hardship.

“I don’t know how many sleepless nights I’ve had, how many emails I’ve sent, saying ‘are you safe tonight?” she said.

So many mothers in the community needed help, but many of them feared going to support services due to fear of losing their kids and homes. Shea decided something needed to change and rolled up her sleeves.

Over the last four months, she has set to transforming the centre into a community hub, developing strong partnerships with Drummond Street Family Services, The Hunt Club (Community Development for Brimbank) and Community Housing VIC (which services housing for vulnerable families).

Shea has linked in with Safe Steps, an accommodation service for women requiring emergency housing and is able to fast track emergency accommodation for families, which usually can be a three hour intake process, of which most women in crisis are mentally and emotionally unable to process.

Shea has also sourced vouchers for the local Coles to donate to families in immediate crisis, as support services can sometimes take 24 hours to distribute.

These partnerships led to the creation of a Meal and Music night, which provided Y families a safe space to talk to support services, community BBQs and Care and Connect sessions.

The first Care and Connect session was held in early September with the support of Domestic Violence workers, Women’s Health, Brimbank Libraries, Maternal Child Health Nurses, psychologists and Playgroups Australia. Over 30 families attended, leading to seven referrals for women in vulnerable situations. The intention of these sessions is to ensure that all children and families of the YMCA are safe and provided with the required support.

Shea also created frequent coffee catch-ups at the Early Learning Centre, where mums can slow down, have a chat and connect. For isolated mums in difficult situations this offer of a free coffee can be life-changing. That first step to get help.

“There was a woman in an abusive situation, who couldn’t leave the house and was drug affected. Through the coffee catch-ups she received help, enrolled in TAFE, the kids are coming to the centre and she got emergency housing.

“In six weeks she was a totally different woman,” she said.

Shea says she is ‘just doing her job’, but ask anyone who works with Shea and they easily praise this incredible woman, who cares deeply for the community.

For Shea, the reward is witnessing the families and women whose lives are positively changed by these connections. But the efforts also speak for themselves as this community hub grows in popularity.

Derrimut YMCA Early Learning Centre occupancy has grown from 42% in January 2019 to 87% in September, with many of the families coming from vulnerable homes and looking for a safe environment for their children. What they find at Derrimut YMCA is not just a childcare service, but a community of individuals who have created a haven for those families in the community facing domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and are affected or dealing with mental health.

For Shea, it all comes back to the Y philosophy to provide children a safe and nurturing space.

“For children, living in domestic violence and not being fed can create life-long trauma. This impacts the type of teens or adults they will become.

“By supporting families we are giving children the best start to life,” she said.