From its humble beginnings as a temporary medical service set up at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy site, Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services has grown into an important part of the health services provided to indigenous people in the national capital.
WINNUNGA Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services have recently moved into a new, purpose-built facility in Narrabundah, enabling the service to do more.
In the Wiradjuri language, Winnunga Nimmityjah, means “strong health”, says the service’s CEO Julie Tongs.
Tongs’ vision as CEO, a role she has held since 1997, has always been for Winnunga to be a leader in the provision of primary health care.
“All Winnunga wants to do is give people an opportunity to be better, to feel good about themselves, and to start to work through some of the layers of trauma that Aboriginal people have experienced,” Tongs says.
Winnunga was established in 1988 by local Aboriginal people inspired by the national mobilisation of people around the opening of the new Parliament House in May and the visit by the Queen.
The late Olive Brown, who worked tirelessly for the health of Aboriginal people, saw the need to set up a temporary medical service at the Tent Embassy site, and enlisted the support of local doctors, midwives and volunteers.
“Thus Winnunga was born,” Tongs says.
Since then it has grown into a pivotal healthcare service, which last year saw some 7000 clients.
Providing around 60,000 occasions of service to its clients annually, Winnunga offers health care to people living in the ACT and across the border.
“In total we have 18,000 clients on the books from 334 suburbs, and 223 postcodes from right across the country,” says Tongs.
“There are a lot of people who come to Canberra to work in the public service, to go to university or to boarding school, so we see a lot of different people.”
Managed by the local Aboriginal community, Winnunga takes a “holistic” approach to health care offering clinical and medical services, and social health programs.
Clients come from all walks of life, Tongs says, from the most high-profile Aboriginal people, to the most marginalised in society.
“We see people who are living in poverty, the working-class poor, and people with high profiles,” says Tongs.
“They come to us because they feel safe here and not judged.”
With more than 30 years’ experience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, Tongs says the ongoing challenges facing indigenous health are enormous.
“The complexity of healthcare and the life expectancy of my people is eight to 10 years less than non-Aboriginal people,” Tongs says.
“Regardless of who you are or how much money you earn, we are still struggling with chronic disease.”
Since its inception 34 years ago, Winnunga has operated from various locations around Canberra.
“At one point admin staff were working out of the health building on Moore Street, and the clinic staff – along with Dr Peter Sharp – were working out the back of the old Griffin Centre,” says Tongs.
“From there we went to Ainslie and then to Narrabundah to the building next door to where our new facility is.”
Before working as CEO, Tongs served on the Winnunga board – including a period as administrator for the organisation.
“The government had some concerns about how the service was being managed. We were told to sort it out otherwise there would be no Winnunga,” says Tongs.
“So, I took six months leave without pay and fixed it up. That was 25 years ago and I’m still here.”
Despite the challenges, Tongs says making a difference to the health outcomes of the Aboriginal community remains a rewarding mission.
“When I first started we had five staff, now we have 70,” says Tongs.
“We have come a long way.”
Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services, 63 Boolimba Crescent, Narrabundah. Call 6284 6222 or visit winnunga.org.au
THE HEALTH CENTRE
New centre with a close eye on indigenous health
SIX doctors, three nurse practitioners and 14 nurses will lead health care delivery at Winnunga’s state-of-the art new health facility in Narrabundah.
The $20 million building – constructed during the pandemic – won’t officially open until September, but its services are in full swing.
“The facility is amazing,” says Winnunga CEO Julie Tongs.
“People call it the Taj Mahal. But I say only the best for my mob because this is what they deserve.”
Some of the clinical services operating out of the purpose-built facility include a dental clinic, audiology, optometry, physiotherapy, podiatry, alcohol and drug services, a needle-exchange program, mental health services and a diabetes clinic.
“We lost five doctors during the pandemic, which was a challenge, but we’ve now got six doctors, and for the first time ever we have three nurse practitioners, and 14 nurses,” says Tongs.
The new facility, which offers services free of charge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, was funded by the Commonwealth, the ACT government and Winnunga itself.
Tongs cites the project as an example of good “self-determination” leading to a great outcome.
“We managed the project, built it on time and on budget, without any government involvement apart from the funding,” says Tongs.
“That’s a really big news story because we are an Aboriginal community controlled health service that managed a big infrastructure project. We should be doing that more often.”
Although it predominantly provides health care services, Winnunga runs a number of social health programs.
Its home maintenance program provides opportunities for reformed prisoners to re-enter the workforce.
“The men work really hard mowing lawns and cleaning up the yards at social-housing homes, because the tenants get threats of eviction if their yards are not looked after,” says Tongs.
Tongs is no stranger to personal hardship having lost two of her own children, affording her the perspective necessary to help tackle the health challenges facing indigenous people.
“I’ve been to so many funerals over the years, and sat with so many families who have buried their kids,” says Tongs.
“I’m a mother who has buried two children of her own. It’s heart wrenching, we shouldn’t have to keep doing this.
“All Winnunga has ever wanted to do is help people get better.”
Currently Winnunga’s services are strictly for indigenous people. But the service employs both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff, a step on the path towards practical reconciliation, Tongs says.
“We have staff from all kinds of cultural backgrounds,” says Tongs.
“To me, that’s reconciliation being practised every day.”
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