18 April 2024

Barnados celebrates 60 years of changing young Canberra lives for the better

| Sally Hopman
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Diana, Princess of Wales with group of mothers and children

In 1985, the then Princess of Wales visited Barnados Canberra, to the delight of youngsters, their parents and staff. Photo: Barnados Canberra.

For 60 years, it has been caring for Canberra’s kids. Children who have slipped through the gaps, others who find themselves in bad situations through no fault of their own, and even more who, for whatever reason, can no longer live with their families.

Barnados Canberra has been there all that time and celebrates its 60th birthday this year.

Barnardos Canberra opened its doors to vulnerable children and families at 2 Atherton St, Downer, on 29 February 1964. Sixty years later, it has become an integral part of the Canberra community.

Barnados Canberra started in the small Downer house with seven young residents, but as the years went on, it moved away from the residential home operation to work more within the community, offering support programs where they were needed.

In between, it has helped to save lives, improved the lives of young people and their families, and even received royal blessings from the Queen Mother in 1965 and Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1985.

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It is a milestone for the organisation which, according to its centre manager, Michael Dunne, is the one that, when others give up, “we stay”.

Mr Dunne, who has been at Barnados for 12 years, said its purpose today remained the same – “putting the needs of children first to improve the situation for families – but the kids are our priority”.

Although times had changed, he said many of the problems had not.

He recalled a case in 1973 when a 17-year-old-boy pitched a tent near Old Parliament House to highlight the plight of the cost of rental accommodation in Canberra.

“So some things haven’t changed,” he said, “although today they are more visible, which forces people to be more accountable about what they’re doing to address the issues.”

Queen Mother waves to crowd

The Queen Mother, surrounded by Barnados youngsters, waves to the crowd during her visit to Canberra in 1965. Photo: Barnados Canberra.

With the increase in the ACT’s population comes an increase of those in need of support.

“With the cost of living issues we’re facing now, we’re finding people who need support who may not have needed it five years ago.

“It is very hard for people to ask for help. If they get to that point, we just make it more accessible for them. We need to break down barriers and fit more around the needs of young people than the other way around.

“We are facing new challenges today—the high cost of rent, mortgages, and living expenses. The challenge we face is to ensure that the people who need help are helped.”

Mr Dunne attributed Barnados’ success to its staff, many of whom had spent their entire working lives there.

Black and white photo of house

The original Barnados Canberra building in Atherton Street, Downer – 60 years ago. Photo: Barnados Canberra.

“One of our program managers has been with us for 36 years, another for more than 30 years,” he said.

“They are very invested in their work,” he said.

“You don’t get rich doing this sort of thing,” he laughed.

“Our people get rewarded by seeing other people succeed.”

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Asked what was on the top of his wishlist for Barnados, Mr Dunne said more “boots on the ground”. Additional funding, was, of course, needed, but he said it was the staff who made all the difference.

“We have what we call a ‘no wrong door’ policy.

“That means we get referrals from families, schools, Community Services, Care and Protection, or any source, and if we have the capacity, we don’t turn people away.

“Yes, we always have waiting list and we try to get through it as quickly as we can. If we can’t find support immediately, we try to link with other services.

“We’re like many other services that operate on the smell of an oily rag, and of course, we’d do more if we had more.”

Barnados will mark its clients’ anniversary with a family day next week.

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I was at Barnardos in Downer in 1985 when this photo of Diana was taken when the now King visited Questacon on the day. I also have many other photos of Diana taken when this one was.
With a strong focus on outdoor activities not a weekend went by in 1985 without Barnardos youth workers taking us kids away from Canberra to more healthy environments such as many camping trips to the coast , a week skiing at Guthega around the time of the royal visit, trips to Barnardos other houses at Shellharbour & Chatswood and one week in to my stay in February 85 was taken fishing at Lake Eucumbene where the unsupervised youth workers took the brand new Barnardos Toyota HiAce van paddock bashing driving around like maniacs running over rabbits and laying them out in the van.
Many a fun time at Barneys to get away from a mother on the dole (who Barnardos criticised).
They were brilliant in may ways but in 1985 didn’t have an understanding of disabilities like autism, and after living in Barnardo house for 9 months then another year in the extension program -temporary foster placement- we were put on to the street as homeless 15 year olds. It was all about the here and now and less about a kids actual future. But all in all good memories

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