Ron Mell, CEO, YMCA Australia


So where do you see some of the greatest challenges in the future communities that are happening in new growth areas?

I think in new growth areas, you generally have populations where it’s a younger demographic, and part of the issues that we’ve experienced is in ensuring that those young people actually have the opportunity to access services. So it’s one thing to be able to say a space for young people, but it’s another thing to actually make it accessible to people who are living in that development. My experience in Perth in the northern suburbs, you might have a youth space, but the bus service only occurs once every hour and stops at 10 o’clock at night, and there isn’t the accessibility through bike lanes or whatever to allow young people to congregate in a space.

I think another is in actually providing the services, it’s probably reasonably easy to identify organisations, either for-profit or not-for-profit who can provide the services, it’s another to have sustainable services in those areas, there needs to be a way. Part of that can obviously be a fee for service, part of it can be local government or government grants, but neither of those is the real answer. If it’s fee for service, then it means that you’re blocking out a large group of people who can’t afford the fee, and if you’re relying on local, state or federal government in terms of funding, then that isn’t sustainable in the long-term.

So, it comes back to that shared value approach where you have partnerships of not-for-profit organisations and for-profit organisations so that you build a sustainable approach to the delivery of those services. I think one of the worst things, especially in poorer demographics, that you can do is build up an expectation amongst communities that a service is going to be provided and then not provide it or only provide it for a year or so, because you basically are building first of all an expectation that a service is going to be provided and that they don’t have to do much and then when it’s taken away, there actually isn’t the skill base there, or the culture to actually start building that service themselves. I think that’s the other piece to it as well.

But the other piece to it is that it can’t be simply the YMCA or any other organisation coming in and providing a service. It has to be something which is built with the community, if you come in and provide a service and you don’t incorporate community in terms of building and operating the service, then you aren’t actually imparting your IP or your skill sets onto the community so that they can continue it, because sustainability isn’t just around money, it is around engagement of community, it is around having communities actually build and operate those services in the long-term.

And a real basic example that I can give would be in the Pilbara, the YMCA was operating a playgroup in remote communities. We started off by just simply providing the service and soon realised that wasn’t sustainable, and that the only way that we could make it sustainable would be to train the mums to actually run the playgroup themselves. That also meant that the community were engaged as well, and I think it applies across our urban communities.

What are some of the needs and challenges facing new communities around health and wellbeing?

You’ve got pressure on families around mortgages and work and all those sorts of things, that don’t necessarily assist in providing a healthy lifestyle. I think for children the primary source of encouraging a healthy lifestyle comes from schools, young people being able to have active lifestyles. And then that needs to be carried forward beyond the school environment to the community environment, and that’s where developments and the services provided can really encourage a more active lifestyle. Because it isn’t just a matter of providing the doctors, or services, or the hospitals, it’s not even just a matter of providing the green space for people to recreate. It is building a cultural piece around community which truly encourages an active lifestyle, around accessibility, the facilities, something sustainable, ownership, one where you watch what you eat and drink and so on. It’s got to come from the top down but also from the bottom up in terms of the way developments are designed and built.

What do you think some of the emerging issues are that we’re going to see when there’s no services in some of these new areas?

If it goes down the path of many of new developments, the money and the resources will be put into managing the sharp end of the social issues, which are created through not thinking about those things at the start. And I think it’s also overlaid by technology and the accessibility of a world environment, by that I mean gambling, pornography, attitudes around sex, and all that sort of thing I think comes through the Internet and the fact there will be a pub there with a TAB and with pokies and all the rest of it. Basically, you import a lot of the issues and we don’t have a willingness to actually tackle those. So the challenges are really compounded and made more complex by the world environment and the fact that we don’t have a willingness, or the capacity, or the resources to tackle those sorts of issues.

I guess the other piece for me is that with a new development there is an opportunity to change that through culture and building sustainable communities at the start, because it’s not as if communities don’t recognize those problems. They well and truly recognize them, but they’re limited in how they can address them, so perhaps one of the exciting challenges for the future is actually how do you coalesce those groups, bring those groups together to actually play an active part in addressing local and more broader challenges.

So you think there’s definitely value in getting wider consultation or engagement early with a broader group of stakeholders.

Absolutely, because that can provide ownership not only to local communities, but to the not-for-profit and hopefully for-profit sector in terms of their engagement in community and working in partnership with not-for-profits like the Y.

So are there any examples where the Y’s been involved in forming some of the early days of new communities?

In the Pilbara we worked very closely with Woodside and BHP Billiton Rio Tinto and it was successful to a large extent as there was a business case for the for-profit organisation to build better communities, and it met obviously the YMCA’s mission in terms of building stronger communities, and it was really clear for people like BHP Billiton in terms of their profit line “Well, if we can provide better, safer, more accessible communities, then there will be more women who will come and live in the Pilbara and we can engage them in work and so on.” So there was a real direct line between a stronger community and their profit line.

The other part to that was a sustainable service, so we designed, built and operated childcare centres for BHP and Woodside, and the profits from those operations helped fund other community services that we provided, we were then able to leverage the profits that we had with funding from the federal government around working in remote, indigenous communities where you need the revenue. You’re not going to build revenue through your program. So, that was an example of where by creating your own revenue base with support from the for-profit sector, building that into something which has sustainability in the long-term.  The bulk of the profits stayed within the community.

Do you think there’s a role for the YMCA to be in discussions early with developers when we’re setting the framework of new places?

I think there’s definitely a role from the start of the visualisation stage because invariably when the YMCA does get involved, it’s usually after the build has happened, and you can immediately see what some of the issues are going to be, whether that’s an aquatic centre where you realise that if they didn’t have that wall there, you would only need two lifeguards rather than three, to whether it’s better having a more mobile type youth space rather than a fixed one, or do you need both, or how do you connect them? So, for me, having the YMCA involved at the start is by far the best way. And also I think, if you do it at the start, you’ve got an opportunity to set the parameters around the involvement of organisations.

If you leave it until the activation stage, then it’s not only too late in terms of design and building culture, but it also means that organisations will be going in and trying to establish their patch usually with a limited amount of resources, and so they won’t be as free with their IP and generosity if they’re wanting to come in at time when everything’s basically being built and set. Whereas if it’s at the very start a facilitator can set the boundaries that this is a shared approach to building and strengthening the community. And so all organisations including the YMCA would need to let go of some stuff really understand, “Well, how can we really impact this community in a positive way, putting aside our own territory?”

How would you see that process being facilitated? Do you have people in-house that would be able to have their head across all of those different sectors to be able to sit in some of those early visioning meetings?

We’ve got 12,000 staff across Australia within 24 YMCAs, all delivering local programs and what we’ve become pretty adept at is pulling together people with specific skills from across the movement to address particular challenges. I think particularly in children’s services, youth area, and in activity type areas.

The YMCA can offer people who are absolutely passionate about providing services for young people and supporting them, and they would come to that meeting with the primary view of providing the best services for young people. You’re getting people involved who are going to want the best for their community.

Are there any examples where the YMCA have had a major impact on a whole community?

A great example which had a really high profile was in Ararat with the Biggest Loser Competition centred at the YMCA. I think their target was losing 10,000Kg within the community. And then the Y provided health stations where you could come in and you could measure your heart rate, your weight, your body fat and that was all online so you could start to build competitions and all the rest of it. So the whole community got behind that. It was pretty amazing really, but that actually led to us experimenting with these health stations and there’s now I think about 25 in about 3 states that we’ve got running, test piloting, where this health station, you set up, it’s online, you stand on it, it takes your height, your weight, takes your blood pressure, fat content, heart rate, gives you a report, you put in your email address and it sends the report to your email address and it sends us a report as well.  We did a trial in Bendigo. We had 400 participants over a week 50% were referred to their doctor, and of those over 30% took action and did go to their doctor.

So in terms of a community benefit the Y provided to that community, it was pretty big, and actually strengthening that community through people being healthier.

If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?

The shift that I think we’re wanting to make is around a shared valued approach where we look at a community and we see what the needs are in that community, and we don’t say, “Well, we can do all of that.” It’s around bringing together the right organisations which are skilled in those particular areas and having a shared approach to meeting those needs, and I think it’s the same also in new developments, probably even more so, that’s really the preventative health approach if you can actually start from the very start rather than when the issues are there. And to me that’s what I love to see is the opportunity to be bringing those organizations together at the start of development, rather than at the end.

We want to look at the community as whole rather than looking at what’s in it for my particular organisation and engaging community as much as possible from the start in that approach. I just think that would add a lot of value in terms of preventative health measures coming in as early as possible.


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