Family Life: Bennelong Foundation's charity in focus

11 October 2011

Family Life is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping families, children and young people in Melbourne's south east. Taking a ‘whole-of-family' approach, the organisation believes engaging the entire family allows for more effective and sustainable change.

In 1970, a small group of people wanted to help families in their local community who were experiencing hardship. Through their pioneering efforts and determination the group established Family Life.

Based in Melbourne's bayside suburb of Sandringham, Family Life now has 80 staff and 350 volunteers. It continues to expand and develop its programmes and services to meet the ever-changing needs of the local individuals and families it supports, while creating strategic alliances with partner agencies that have specialist counselling expertise.

Changing social landscape

Family Life offers a number of important services from counselling, mediation, mental health services, community development, personal support and community educational services to outreach to homes, case coordination and advocacy. Taking a ‘whole-of-family' approach, the organisation believes engaging the entire family, where appropriate, allows for more effective and sustainable change. Yet, while their services are available to individuals and families, they remain focused on those who are vulnerable or ‘at risk' in the community. Judith Latta, Family Life's Community Relations Manager, believes that it is the needs and personal circumstances of this at-risk group that has changed the way the organisation develops and delivers many of its initiatives.

"Clients are coming to Family Life with an ever-increasing range of complex problems. Sexual abuse, drugs and alcohol addiction, mental health problems, social isolation and child neglect are intertwined and difficult to manage," said Judith.

In response, Family Life has developed several targeted programmes, such as its PeopleWorx, MATES and Child FIRST initiatives, and invested in staff training to ensure counsellors' skills are up-to-date and remain appropriate for effectively helping clients.

"We have also established a mental health team and a mental health prevention programme that focuses on supporting eight- to 12-year-old children with early signs of mental health issues or whose parents have mental health problems. In addition, we have invested in developing strategic alliances with partner agencies that have expertise in specific areas such as drug and alcohol."

‘PeopleWorx' at work

Developing programmes to meet the changing needs of the local community is challenging. With competition for funding fierce, not-for-profit organisations must be creative in the way they generate and allocate funds. To this end Family Life's pioneering and innovative founders established the organisation's first opportunity shop in 1971. Decades on (and more opportunity shops later), Family Life's shops have formed the cornerstone of one of the organisation's most successful initiatives, PeopleWorx.

Sponsored by the Bennelong Foundation, the PeopleWorx programme aims to help those who have had difficulty securing employment or who may be socially isolated. By providing the opportunity to work in one of Family Life's opportunity shops under the supervision of trained volunteers, it gives candidates the ability to gain work experience and to develop the skills and confidence needed to find employment and to become active and engaged in the community.

Specifically, the programme provides:

  • work experience in a retail environment;
  • training in Certificate II in Retail;
  • personal support; and
  • access to support services.

Last year the programme helped 79 people get a job, go back to study or be a volunteer in the community, while 16 people graduated with Certificate II in Retail.

Judith recounts a PeopleWorx success story: "‘Jason' had held a senior job but after being diagnosed with a mental illness, he lost confidence. He plucked up the courage to join PeopleWorx. After six months he was offered casual office work with a local company. Not long after, the company offered him a permanent job.

From a social return on investment perspective, this is a powerful outcome for the community. No longer is he receiving Centrelink benefits. This represents a saving of about $15,000 per year. He is now paying tax. This is a benefit to the community of another $3,000 per year. While not ‘cured', his mental health problems have reduced with the resultant saving to the community on medications and medical appointments. Conservatively this is worth $1,000 per annum.

I think Jason's story shows how anyone's life can change, but with support and professional intervention, people can move on to lead healthy productive lives."

Judith acknowledged that "the programme's success is attributable to the caring support and encouragement of the 82 trained volunteers at PeopleWorx."

"I'm proud Family Life has developed a proven model for helping vulnerable people to get the support, work experience and skills needed to get a job and to become active and engaged citizens. People's lives have changed for the good. I'm also proud to be part of an initiative that is successful because so many people care about others and are willing to volunteer their time to help," said Judith.

Continuing the volunteering spirit

Like many charities, volunteers form the backbone of Family Life's work. Founded by volunteers, it is the volunteering spirit that has helped Family Life grow and develop to meet the needs of its community. Today, 350 members of the local community are active volunteers, some of whom have been working with the organisation for over 30 years. For many, volunteering provides them with a sense of belonging to the community, an opportunity to give back and a chance to develop lasting friendships.

"We invite volunteers to make contributions that suit their lifestyle, interests and areas of expertise. Some prefer to work directly with Family Life clients through the Creating Capable Communities programmes, for example, while others prefer to work on a project basis, such as with the fundraising committees. For those interested in volunteering for our community programmes, we offer training courses, depending on volunteers' qualifications and experience, and supervision and support to help them effectively assist clients."

Helping the helpers

Despite the selflessness of their volunteers, like many charities, Family Life must develop and maintain its income streams to ensure it can continue its work and to remain competitive for high-calibre staff. While funded in part by the state and federal governments, Family Life also raises necessary funds through its opportunity shops, fundraising campaigns, business development initiatives and philanthropic grants. As a result it is able to continue funding programmes, while being in the position to offer competitive salaries. Similarly, with much of Family Life's work helping vulnerable families, the challenges and emotions faced by staff can be significant, therefore funds are also allocated to ‘helping the helpers'. "For example, our Child FIRST team deals with at-risk babies, which can be emotionally draining for staff," said Judith. "To help them carry out their roles effectively, our human resources department has implemented professional development programmes that provide additional training, professional support and the opportunity to rotate roles through internal recruitment."

Community commitment today and beyond

With a continued focus on improving the wellbeing of families, children and young people in Melbourne's bayside areas, Family Life remains committed to helping its local community. "Going forward, we aim to replicate and expand our services, in particular in the high-need Rosebud West and Frankston areas; grow our volunteering work; and further develop the PeopleWorx programme, to name just a few initiatives. Thanks to the generous support of the Bennelong Foundation, Family Life can continue to help those who need it most."

For more information about Family Life, visit

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