Catherine Vaara – Lifeline

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Lifeline provides vital and ongoing services to help support our community. Catherine Vaara, CEO Lifeline Mid Coast, explains some of these services from a local perspective… 

Please provide a brief description of your career background …

I studied at the University of New England (UNE). My first job after graduating was a Social Worker position at the Dubbo Base Hospital. I left Dubbo to live and work in Valdez, Alaska and ended up staying for almost 12 years. While in Alaska, I worked as the Direct Services Coordinator and then as CEO for a not-for-profit called Advocates for Victims of Violence – a women’s shelter which also provided training in villages, court advocacy, counselling services and a 24/7 crisis line run by volunteers.

What led to you becoming involved with Lifeline in the first place?

When I was studying at UNE back in the ‘80s, one of our lecturers recommended we volunteer at Lifeline as a way of learning and practising counseling skills, so I have been acquainted with Lifeline for many years. It wasn’t until I began working for a not-for-profit organisation that I really appreciated the work they do – I became aware of a commitment and passion for community that I hadn’t experienced before.

When I returned home to Port Macquarie and saw an opening at Lifeline, I thought it would be a great career opportunity. Lifeline Mid Coast is truly a community based organisation and now in my 9th year, I am very proud to be at its helm.

What’s involved on a day-to-day basis with your position as CEO? 

This is a remarkably hard question to answer. As the CEO of Lifeline Mid Coast, I am responsible, under the direction of our Board, for providing leadership and operational management to achieve Lifeline Mid Coast’s vision and strategic direction.

On a daily basis, I may be closely involved in a very real crisis intervention, be a guest speaker at a local organisation, or sitting at my desk writing grant submissions. I am also keenly involved in Lifeline at a national level, participating in strategic directions or discussions to improve services at national, state and local levels.

I am also closely linked to my staff and volunteers and feel privileged to be part of an organisation that values the input of its workers. I may attend training sessions for crisis workers, or I could be visiting one of our 6 Lifeline shops. My days are very full and varied.

Where are the local branches of Lifeline located, and what services are offered?

Lifeline Mid Coast has two offices, one in Port Macquarie and one in Taree. Lifeline Mid Coast’s core services are crisis support and suicide intervention and prevention. Specifically we provide: training in Lifeline’s Telephone Crisis Counselling; 24/7 Telephone Crisis Support through Lifeline’s 13 11 14 number; Support After Suicide (SAS), a bereavement support group for those in our community bereaved by suicide; Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshops; SafeTALK and Suicide Talk presentations; memorial services at Christmas time to remember family and friends who have taken their own life; and together in partnerships with other community groups, we also provide community forums.

Lifeline is a community based organisation which relies on volunteers in our Crisis Support programs, as well as in our shops. In fact, Lifeline Mid Coast’s shops are the backbone of our organisation, providing about 80% of the funding needed for our crisis and suicide prevention services. Other funding comes from donations, bequests, sponsorships, and local grants. However, both State and Federal funding supports Lifeline, particularly in developing and maintaining our quality of training and our computerised telephony system.

Without this mix of funding and support, we would not be able to provide the vital services that we do.

What are some of the changes that have been implemented locally during your time at Lifeline? 

We are now answering the calls from anywhere in Australia, instead of just from our local area. Since going national in 2007, Lifeline Mid Coast is answering calls from people in distress from every state and territory in Australia and even from places like Japan and Serbia. It’s an amazing feeling to know that you have made a difference in someone else’s life, and we are now supporting more people than ever.

Transitioning into a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) was another significant change. We are now providing a certificate IV level of training and yes, universities still encourage their psychology, counselling and social work students to volunteer as a Lifeline Crisis Supporter.

We’ve also initiated a lot of change in our shops, especially in their presentation. We hope to provide a happy and comfortable shopping experience to our shoppers. We believe that donated items need to meet a standard before we allow them into our shops, and we believe that we all deserve nice things, and this is possible even on a low income.

We believe in recycling and when an article of clothing doesn’t meet the standard for re-sale, we turn it into industrial rag for re-sale. We do our best to limit landfill waste, but rely on our community to recognise the need to be selective when providing donated items for re-sale.

On average, how many people would you estimate use Lifeline’s services locally each week?

This is also a difficult question to answer.  Think about a pond and the dropping of one pebble into it; that pebble causes many ripples. This is how I see our Lifeline volunteers. The skills they learn radiate out, touching many lives, not only on the phones, but also in their personal and working lives. Statistically, Lifeline answers about 500,000 calls a year; Lifeline Mid Coast answers around 10,000 of those crisis calls.

About 40% of our calls come from our home area, the rest from anywhere in Australia. Our Life Matters Coordinator provides support to approx. seventy people who have been bereaved by suicide and many more through the provision of resources to schools, organisations and other individuals. We estimate we have trained over 1,000 on the Mid North Coast in ASIST, and our memorials services are attended by 20 – 60 people each year.

What would you like to see Lifeline achieve over the next 12 months? 

I’m interested in developing Lifeline’s role to support the Red Cross and other organisations involved in community disaster recovery.

Lifeline has well trained volunteers, who can be quickly mobilised in times of need. We are deeply imbedded in our community, and I think we are under-utilised at times.

I would also like to challenge more men to think about volunteering. Truck drivers, men to help in our shops, crisis supporters and even men to work on odd jobs makes a huge difference to our organisation’s ability to function at its peak.

Having the courage to get out of our comfort zone is always challenging; however, volunteering has many rewards and is worth a try.

How can the community become involved in helping Lifeline?

We rely on volunteers in our shops and on our crisis support team. Volunteering is crucial for our organisation; without them we would have no shops, and we would not be able to provide the services we do. Interestingly, research is now discovering the benefits of volunteering to the individual. People who volunteer are happier, and tend to be healthier, and evidence suggests volunteers are less like to have symptoms of dementia. Lifelong friendships and bonds are formed while volunteering.

We are always in need of quality used furniture, homewares and clothes. Donations and sponsorships are also deeply appreciated and go directly into providing community based services here in our region.

Thanks Catherine.

Interview by Jo Atkins.

Lifeline Mid Coast is online at:

This story was published in issue 64 of Manning-Great Lakes Focus

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