Trevor Ratcliffe has a passion for volunteering and community support work.
The simple philosophy of ‘helping others to help themselves’ has always been a cornerstone of his work in – and with – his local community. The now retired former public servant, and active Narre Warren North Uniting Church member, has turned his efforts to the growing needs in his church’s community.
With the support of minister Rev Ineke Gyles, Mr Ratcliffe and the Narre Warren North congregation, although small, are increasingly reaching out to foster broader community links.
With a rich history stretching back to the 1860s the Narre Warren North Uniting Church has long been an integral part of the local area. It began its life as the Mornington Road Wesleyan Chapel in 1863 when Narre Warren was an isolated farming and pastoral township.
At this time, when resources were scarce and life was often tough, many church and broader community support initiatives were becoming active. Although the challenges may have changed, a focus on community needs with a can-do attitude so typical of rural life, continues today.
Modern day Narre Warren is vastly different than the one faced by early settlers.
Suburbia has well and truly caught up on either side of town, the population has dramatically increased and, as with many parts of the country, demographics continue to shift and reflect the diversity of contemporary Australia. These significant changes in the makeup of the community are evident today in the outreach work of the Narre Warren North congregation.
The church’s recently established ‘skills for life project’ facilitates a range of information and support sessions on issues facing the community.
Sessions are run by presenters from community support organisations covering everything from finance and budgeting to support for a range of relationships and family issues.
Mr Ratcliffe, the project’s coordinator, said the sessions draw inspiration from – and harken back to – early initiatives that focussed on the provision of practical skills and information.
“One of the early models of this sort of community provision of tools for people to help themselves was the Mechanics Institutes,” he said.
“They originated in the 1800s. They were people in a community who wanted to better themselves by creating learning opportunities.
“That model has always impressed me. It’s an effective way of addressing community disjoint and some of the issues we increasingly face today.”
Mr Ratcliffe cites social issues such as family breakdown, dementia, grandparents taking on the role of primary carer for young children and financial strain as key areas often lacking support frameworks. The skills program is the congregation’s response to these community needs.
The congregation also has several other community outreach initiatives and strives to be a church that is more than just a ‘Sunday service’.
“It’s very much a matter of responding to changes in the area,” Mr Ratcliffe said.
“We’ve got a community garden, a craft and conversation group, a photography group, book club and an Op Shop.”
The Op Shop is one example Mr Ratcliffe says illustrates the benefit of church’s utilising existing untapped resources.
“It’s about having facilities for the community, that in itself builds people’s trust in the congregation and they do become involved as we’ve proven by example.
“The Op Shop was established to address finances but also to deliberately provide a focus for people who want to undertake a community service.
“Op Shop volunteers and people who donate goods see the value of contributing – I think that illustrates how a church can become very important to a community.”
Commenting on the need for congregations to trial new approaches, Mr Ratcliffe stresses the importance of evaluating existing opportunities.
“You have to be open-minded and utilise whatever facilities or resources are at hand,” he said.
“Our Op Shop didn’t begin with much expenditure at all. It began when a curtain was put across a third of the church hall – that was the Op Shop.”
Mr Ratcliffe said developing existing resources is important for congregations.
“Programs need to be more than just a community support,” he said.
“They really should be giving some sort of return to the church so that it can continue to provide programs and grow.”
The Narre Warren North congregation has been steadily renewing its talents to embrace and nurture its community. Mr Ratcliffe is confident they will continue to adapt to the changing times and challenges.
“This is the first time these sessions have been offered – whether it will be a success I don’t know yet,” Mr Ratcliffe said.
“But the time is right for renewing an old idea, in a place of renewal, at Narre Warren North.”
For more information contact Trevor Ratcliffe on 97005061 or email email@example.com.