29 April 2024

Inside the new van designed to help tackle Canberra's 'hidden' problem

| James Coleman
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Beryl Woman Inc case workers Angie Piubello, Donna Spillman, and Rachel McMenamin.

Beryl Women Inc case workers Angie Piubello, Donna Spillman and Rachel McMenamin. Photo: James Coleman.

A white Volkswagen van, kitted out inside as a children’s play space, is driving around Canberra as a novel way to help address a “hidden” problem.

The longest running women’s refuge in Australia, Beryl Women Inc, received a $327,000 grant from the ACT Government in late 2022 to develop a new program designed to take its therapy and trauma counselling sessions to the children who have lived with domestic violence.

The Safe and Strong Van Program is described as the “first and only program of its kind in the ACT”.

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“I’ve been at Beryl for 16 years as a case worker, and we’ve had – ongoingly – a lack of support for children and young people, and some of it is around accessibility,” program lead Angie Piubello said.

“Barriers like mums who don’t have a car to drive kids to appointments, or kids who are really confronted by going to a counsellor – there’s stigma around that. And the cost is major as well – there are 12 to 18-month wait lists for child psychologists here in Canberra.”

The van will enable case workers to pick up children from their schools or homes and conduct therapy sessions in private, as many as four to five visits a day (or “about 20 kids a week”).

Beryl Women van

The Beryl Women Volkswagen van and its fit-out by Drifta Camping and 4WD was funded by an ACT Government grant. Photo: James Coleman.

“You might have a situation where you go to a home and there’s four siblings and you can’t do therapy at work in a lounge room with three other kids and the mum there,” Angie said.

“This way, we can pull up out the front, or go for a drive around the corner, and do that one-on-one session at the local park. It’s about flexibility.”

Drifta Camping and 4WD completed the fit-out in January this year. So if it looks a bit like a campervan inside, that’s the idea.

Angie Piubello and Emma Davidson

Beryl Women Inc. case worker Angie Piubello shows ACT Greens MLA Emma Davidson inside the van. Photo: James Coleman.

“We call it retro-camper style. It’s got that heavy-duty balance of soft and hard wearing – because we want it to last as long as it can – without feeling too confrontational.”

A variety of soft toys, dolls and dollhouses, games, and play-stations cater for children aged from four to eight. And for all ages, there’s “art therapy” and “sand therapy” to “help access traumatic memories”.

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Beryl Women Inc. launched the van during an event at the Corroboree Park Hall in Ainslie this week, attended by leaders of various support services and government ministers.

“It’s a real hidden issue in Canberra we don’t talk about a lot, but it’s out there,” Angie said.

“Children with serious mental health conditions, depression, suicidality sometimes, a lot of loss and grief, because they’ve either left their home or been through a period of homelessness for a number of years.”

ACT ministers Rachel Stephen-Smith, Yvette Berry and Emma Davidson

ACT ministers Rachel Stephen-Smith, Yvette Berry and Emma Davidson cut the official ribbon on Tuesday, 23 April. Photo: James Coleman.

ACT Minister for Children, Youth and Families Rachel Stephen-Smith said the van came out of a meeting several years ago with various heads of the domestic and family violence sector, and what they were hearing from the children and young people.

“We know young people who’ve experienced early childhood trauma in particular or been exposed to domestic and family violence need to have an opportunity to safely express that, and to also learn to be children again and feel safe in doing so,” she told Region.

The Safe and Strong Van Program will be rolled out first to kids and young people currently housed with Beryl, followed by “outreach clients” in phase two, and ultimately, in phase three, for other domestic violence services and community organisations.

Social Ventures Australia will help with the evaluation process by preparing feedback forms and reports.

Beryl Women van

The Beryl Women Inc. van is yet to be decorated with vinyl signage. Photo: James Coleman.

Minister Stephen-Smith said the next few months would be about trial and error, “understanding what demand is … and whether there need to be some tweaks or whether the model that has been implemented is going to be the kind of thing that we want to duplicate into the future”.

Angie is already talking about a fleet of vans in future, “once people realise the playful lens on therapy is an important step” for the kids.

“That’s my hope – that all of the kids accessing this in six to nine months’ time have got really great emotional skills, they’ve learnt that what they’ve been through isn’t their fault, and they’ve learnt how to manage big things in life, because life will always throw stuff at you.”

Visit the Beryl Women Inc. website for more information, or to donate.

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