Gai Newman
Fri, October 18, 2013 at 12:00
Stephanie Hunt

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Diversity and Inclusion

Tucked behind the Coles Supermarket on Harbour Drive are the timeworn cottages that house the Coffs Harbour Neighbourhood Centre.  Many of us would not know that this unassuming place exists.  Yet the Centre provides free legal and tax advice, community computers, a disability arts group, mentors for men, a homework group… whatever it takes to give a leg up to the people in our community who are disadvantaged.

Fifty-five year old Gai Newman, the woman at the helm of the Neighbourhood Centre, is equally unassuming; in fact she’s downright shy.  But her shyness is hidden from most by her resolve, a dogged belief that our community needs to be inclusive.

She joined the Centre some 5 years ago, but she’s been working with people who are physically, mentally or economically disadvantaged for almost 30 years. And Gai says that the people she has worked with have taught her much about resilience and about herself.

She remembers Wilma, one of 4 women with intellectual disabilities that she supported over two decades ago, helping them move from a lifetime in institutions to a community house in Bairnsdale, Victoria.  “Wilma was blind, 4 foot nothing, couldn’t speak very well and had scars all down her legs,” Gai recalls.  “The only way she could tell me that she wasn’t happy was to let out this enormous roar.” 

Taking Wilma out to public places was terrifying and often embarrassing for a young Gai.  And communicating with her sometimes seemed impossible.   “I had to stop being worried about what other people thought,” she recalls.  “And she encouraged me to think about new ways of being with people – ways of communicating other than just verbally.  She taught me so much.”

And now at the Neighbourhood Centre it is Gai’s turn to teach.  She is responsible for training the many volunteers who are the lifeblood of the Centre.  From her years in the sector, she knows it’s hard for volunteers to not have preconceived ideas. “But even if you know that someone has used all the services in town 50 times, you need to listen with an open mind,” Gai tells her team. 

Gai has not always been met with an open mind in her own life.  A relatively naïve country girl from a large, supportive family in the Riverina, she didn’t know how to react when her husband and the father of her two small children began to struggle with depression.  “I was young at the time and I had no idea,” she recalls.  “But I knew that something was really wrong.” 

When Gai’s husband finally sought help, the psychiatrist asked to see Gai on her own.  “He got me to lie on the floor with my eyes close, and questioned me about my husband’s depression,” Gai recalls.  She felt accused of contributing to what was later diagnosed as a genetic depression.  Gai will always recall that sense of being judged.

Unable to help or find help, Gai separated from her husband, when Leah was 6 and Ash was 3, and started life as a single mother.  Living in Bairnsdale, Victoria at the time of the separation, Gai supported her family by working wherever she could, even teaching Tai Chi.

It was through Tai Chi that she was initially invited to help out at a local training centre, and wound up with her first job working with people with disabilities.  “That was when I first noticed that people weren’t all treated the same,” she says.  “I realised they just had to toughen up to the fact that people were going to look at them differently for the rest of their lives.”

Gai’s empathy for people with “differences” grew, as did her conviction that communities needed to become more inclusive.  When she and her new partner moved to Bellingen with the children in 1994, Gai settled into a career managing a respite service for people with disabilities.

She discovered that she couldn’t help adding her own touches to the care provided.  She remembers organising annual camps for children and adults with disabilities.  She made the decision to open the kids camps to all the siblings. “It just felt more inclusive and helpful,” she says.  “What was the point of taking one child if the parents were dealing with five.”

This ability to see what was needed and shape a response to fit often ran head on into red tape and bureaucracy.  “I like bending the rules,” Gai says.  “And (in the disability sector) there is too much black and white: you’re eligible or not eligible.”

The opportunity at the Neighbourhood Centre came at a time when she felt worn down by the red tape and inability to help those who didn’t fit the guidelines.  So not surprisingly, what Gai loves most about the Neighbourhood Centre is its inclusiveness.  “Whoever walks through the door, we’re going to try and help them.  There are no barriers to giving someone a hand.”  Gai smiles.

Gai with her two grandchildrenUnder Gai’s leadership the Centre has become a reflection of her personal belief in social inclusion.  “When I first started the Centre’s reception was usually staffed by people with similar backgrounds.  Now when you arrive at the Centre you could be greeted by someone who is Aboriginal or from Zambia, Eritrea, Ethiopia or Togo,” says Gai.

But there will always be limitations on Gai’s ability to influence change.  The Centre provides services for people who find themselves homeless - trying to get them accommodation, sourcing food and providing a shower.  But still, she says, many times she has had to watch someone walk off alone into a rainy night.

Gai has had to let people walk away in her personal life as well.  Three years ago she separated again.  There are periods of regret.  But Gai is resilient and says she is excited to be living on her own without the responsibility of caring for someone else for the first time in 30 years.

But even flying solo, Gai continues to be drawn to caring for others .  Not long after the separation Gai answered an ad for a part time job as a funeral attendant.  “I thought I’d looked after people in so many areas, that this might be interesting,” she says. When Gai buried her own father, whom she had loved and cared for during his final years, she dressed him, put the screws in his coffin and drove him to the cemetery.  “It was really beautiful,” she says of this final act of caring.

While the Centre is hectic and sometimes frustrating, Gai finds beauty in her work as well.  Yes, she admits, it’s difficult to watch people walk alone into the night.  “But they keep coming back.  Even though we don’t have all the answers we have compassion.” 

It is amazing how simple respect and listening helps people to feel included.

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Gai says that Jenny Ellis is the most interesting person she has met on the Coffs Coast.  Jenny is an Aboriginal woman, a mother and grandmother, a photographer and film maker, one of the instigators of Women of the World and an art teacher who has recently been working with the Centre’s Disability Art Group.  I am looking forward to meeting this woman of many talents.

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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