Finding a Calling, Through Advocacy
Advocacy goes hand in hand with Unisson’s story. When you join Unisson, you become part of a community with a network of families, friends, guardians, and advocates who fight for the rights of people with disability, ensuring they can lead inclusive lives within their own communities, and that no one is left to walk their journey alone.
Yvonne Leach has been a part of Unisson’s community for more than 30 years. In various capacities – as a volunteer, as a guardian and as an advocate for people with disability – she has brought her love and her ideas to the table, while making a real difference in the lives of others. It all began more than three decades ago, when a group of around twenty people with disability attended the Northside Baptist Church at Crows Nest. For Yvonne, who was present at the church service, it was a decisive moment in her life. She recalled, “I fell madly in love with them.”
The group continued to attend church regularly and Yvonne sought to visit them at their home in Gore Hill, then known as the Lorna Hodgkinson Sunshine Home. To make this happen, she became an official volunteer, and so the decades-long association between Yvonne and our organisation was born. She was always ready to open her heart to our clients and to share her ideas on how best to support them.
According to Yvonne, “Sunshine was a place of joy. I remember one special afternoon in the senior’s group I had organised – we had music going and some people were dancing, and when the lawn mowing guys heard the music, they came over and started dancing, and the young ones in a different building also heard the music and came over as well. It was just so much fun and you went home with a smile right across your face.”
Another high point in the week for everyone was the tuckshop at the school, which opened on Wednesday afternoons. The main goal for most young people was to purchase a paper bag full of lollies. Yvonne recalled, “It was really important; there was heightened excitement. Everyone would come away from the tuckshop with their lolly bags, smiling.”
Other highlights included the bush dances in the hall on Friday nights, the annual harbour cruise, and the excitement and drama caused when someone “set off” the fire alarm, with all the fire trucks coming down the driveway. Yvonne said, “Part of the joy was that something funny was always happening!”
Shortly after Yvonne began volunteering, she was contacted by someone from the Ridge Crest Christian Education Centre’s camp near Cumnock in NSW. They had previously supported children with cerebral palsy in their bunk style accommodation and were looking to support other groups of about twenty people with disability. Yvonne immediately responded with the words, “Have twenty, will come!”
This was the beginning of a new tradition for many of our clients – an annual camp, which was attended by Yvonne, together with a group of volunteers from her church and some of their children. Yvonne recalled, “We’d attend the camp from the Friday night to the Sunday. Everyone had a buddy; it was one-to-one in terms of support.”
At Ridge Crest, there were donkey rides, a flying fox, bush dancing, as well as day trips to Dubbo Zoo, Wellington Caves and a local hobby farm. It was a long drive down to the camp – almost six hours from Gore Hill – but after the success of the first year, it became an annual event, with an increasing number of participants, and was very much looked forward to by all.
After 10 years, the annual camp location changed to Bethshan Camp Centre at Wyee, where the campers could also enjoy canoeing on Lake Macquarie, horse riding, visits from the zookeepers and animals from the nearby Australian Reptile Park, and “exciting” tricycle rides. Yvonne says that many of the volunteers and their children, who were from the church at Crows Nest, are still actively involved in the lives of the people they supported to attend these camps.
When the transition to living within the community took place during the 1990s, Yvonne helped to find alternative churches for people who were interested in attending, close to where they lived. She kept in touch with everyone by visiting them at their churches to make sure they were going well. “I was told by one pastor, about one lady, ‘She’s made a difference to this place. She’s friendly, she knows everybody in the church’. She brought them more together.” It was a great way for people to be involved in their local communities.
On one of her early visits to Gore Hill, Yvonne met a young man by the name of Sean. She wanted to learn more about Sean’s interests, and some of the early activities he enjoyed included pulling apart old computers and working with wood to make various items. Yvonne and Sean would go on outings together, and Sean began to build his independence, carrying a wallet which Yvonne bought for him so that he could pay for the things he needed. Yvonne still advocates for Sean today, making sure that he has all the support he needs in his shared living home and speaking to his support workers each week.
During her years volunteering, Yvonne also met Lyn and, in time, became her legal guardian. Yvonne took care of Lyn, found opportunities to improve her mobility, such as swimming, helped her to her appointments and advocated for her over a long period of time. Many years later, when Lyn became gravely ill, Yvonne stayed at one of our shared living homes to be close to her, so that she did not die alone.
Unisson’s former CEO and current Board Director, Rebecca Fletcher, spoke about Yvonne – who is now 88 years old – and the important place she has had in the lives of many of our clients. “Yvonne’s warmth was so important. When it came to her relationship with Lyn, for example, Yvonne was able to bring normality to her life through her advocacy; she effectively became Lyn’s family and was with her right to the end.”
Yvonne, who is now legally blind, is not able to be as active as she once was in the lives of the people she became close to, although she is still advocating for Sean. Rebecca spends half a day a week now supporting Yvonne, enabling her to continue to support Sean.
Looking back, Yvonne says that it was important to her to give people with disability the opportunity to experience new things and to build their independence. She says it’s not about her time or what she has given of herself in the service of others, but about the joy and the love she has experienced in return.
Image: Unisson Director, Rebecca (left)
and Unisson volunteer, Yvonne (right)