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Canberra Today 3°/5° | Sunday, May 22, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

New charity chief has lived on both sides of poverty

Michelle Colefax… “The work that Vinnies does helping those in the community that are less fortunate drives you.” Photo: Holly Treadaway

NEW Vinnies boss Michelle Colefax knows what it’s like to live below the poverty line.

Canberra born, Michelle was seven-years-old when her parents’ separation spiralled the family into financial difficulty.

Her mother juggled three jobs to make ends meet.

But the family were blessed to have Vinnies volunteers as neighbours and through their help were able to break the cycle of poverty.

“Our neighbours were Vincentians and were part of a local conference and they helped us get the support we needed,” Michelle said.

“Mum eventually found a full-time job and we fought our way out of it.”

Michelle, 42, said Vinnies had left a major impact on her life.

Now, as the new CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra/Goulburn – replacing Barnie van Wyk – she wants to give back to the organisation that helped her family find its feet.

“This is my time to thank Vinnies because without them we could have fallen through the cracks,” Michelle said.

Despite the financial challenges Michelle faced as a child, it didn’t prevent her from completing tertiary studies at university and building a successful career.

Before joining Vinnies – where she served for a time as deputy CEO and chief financial officer – Michelle worked in various roles within the federal government.

But after a short stint as an IT consultant in the private sector, Michelle was struck by a moment of truth and decided there must be something more valuable she could do with her skills.

“I realised I didn’t like working for a for-profit [organisation] and I needed a purpose,” Michelle said.

“Vinnies has always been a part of my entire life and so by coming back it’s given me a reason to get up every day.”

Michelle has identified some key areas she wants to focus on during her tenure, one of which is continuing the work Vinnies does addressing the homelessness issue in the nation’s capital.

There were 38,000 Canberrans, including 9000 children, living below the poverty line – more people than before the pandemic began – and the cost of living was increasingly unaffordable for low-income Canberrans, Michelle said.

“The ability to put a roof over your head or feed your family might not be an everyday issue for most people in Canberra, but there are a lot of families who are struggling with that,” she said.

But the charity boss takes heart from the success of its Street to Home program that helps find rough sleepers a place to live. 

“On average, we could case manage 75 rough sleepers a year, but at the moment we are averaging about 41, so the numbers are down for us, which is great,” Michelle said.

Through covid, the program, which runs in partnership with the ACT government and other community service providers, placed homeless people – at risk of getting covid – into hotel accommodation and eventually into a social housing home.

“There’s still a long way to go to make sure there’s enough social and community housing to meet the need,” she said.

“But what this has shown us is that, during a crisis, the community can come together and find valuable solutions that work. It’s just unfortunate that it takes a crisis for that to happen.”

Vinnies has had a long history of helping the Canberra community. 

An important event on its fundraising calendar is the annual sleep-out which this year exceeded all expectations.

“We had a target of $650,000 and we broke that with over $1 million. It was spectacular,” said Michelle.

“It shows us that the community supports the work that Vinnies does.”

Volunteering has been an important part of Michelle’s life, having spent her adolescence working as a Vinnies volunteer alongside her mother. 

As my family became more self-reliant, both mum and I volunteered with Vinnies. We did bread runs and dropped off grocery hampers to people that Vinnies were supporting,” she said.

The challenging circumstances that Michelle experienced in her early years have given her an insight into the volunteering sector and she’s keen to encourage more young people to engage with the organisation.

“The work that Vinnies does helping those in the community that are less fortunate drives you,” Michelle said.

“If you can help one person, and it puts a smile on their face and creates a relief for them, then that gives you purpose.”

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Belinda Strahorn

Belinda Strahorn

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