PAULA May is Bendigo Community Health Services’ longest-serving employee, devoting the past 37 years to helping local at-risk families reach their full potential.
At the age of 74, the family support worker has contemplated retirement in the past and once even started going through the early stages of the process.
“But I came out the other end and thought, no, I have still got something to offer. I love my job, I love the workers and our team and I feel good about staying at work.”
Paula grew up in a single-parent family and, through her own experiences, understands many of the daily challenges faced by the mums, dads and children she comes in contact with.
Having worked as a factory sewing machinist in her early life – including at Hanro Knitting Mills in the very building that houses BCHS’s central office today – she believes she was destined to work in the family services field.
“I am sure that most of the lessons I have had to learn in life have led me to this,” says the mother of four, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of one.
“It feels like this is what I was meant to do.”
Paula joined BCHS on June 15, 1979. She had returned to her home town of Bendigo after a stint in Melbourne and was working part-time in a grocery store when she saw a newspaper ad for a family support worker and felt compelled to apply.
She didn’t get the job. But soon after she received a phone call to say a second position had opened up if she was still interested, and she has been supporting local families ever since.
Paula works with the family services team to deliver the new Changing Futures outreach program introduced by the Department of Health and Human Services on February 1.
“We work closely with child protection and the community-based practitioner, who identify families that have had a lot of reports and we work with those families to try and keep them out of child protection,” she says.
“We are part of the North Central Victoria Family Support Alliance, which includes also Anglicare Victoria and the Bendigo District Aboriginal Co-operative.
“The Child First workers at Anglicare allocate cases to the agencies and we go out and meet the families. We look at their hopes, dreams and goals and ask, what do they want to achieve? What do they want to change to make life better for them?”
“We might work to engage the parents with their child’s school, or look at whether they are taking the child to the dentist or the maternal and child health nurse.
“It is really about looking at the child’s development all the way along the line.”
Paula is a huge advocate of positive parenting, reflective listening, and ensuring the child’s voice is heard. She says she’s learnt a lot about parenting herself throughout her career.
“If parents can give their kids a minute or two to digest their feelings and then acknowledge them, the children can learn to regulate their emotions a lot better.
“Parents can then build better relationships with their kids and the attachment and bonding that develops is just wonderful.”
One of the more challenging aspects of Paula’s job is helping families overcome the disadvantage of poverty, but she says it is often a case of trying to change the mindset.
“People can be happy if they are 51 per cent positive,” she says.
“It is very rewarding for me when a family is able to run with their goals and start to achieve them despite all the odds. We all have hurdles - some high, some low - but if people can start moving and make some differences, their kids really benefit. And it can be such little things.
“If you haven’t got a lot of money but you want to have fun, put a blanket on the lounge room floor and have a picnic with your kids. Simple, fun things don’t have to cost a lot.”
In her spare time, Paula maintains an extensive vegetable garden and enjoys caravan trips around Australia with husband of almost 52 years, Keith.
She also recently returned to another hobby that showcases her creative side – painting eye-catching landscapes from photographs and in the open air.
“I used to sell a few of my paintings many years ago,” she says, adding that she is hopeful some of her future works might attract interest from buyers.
“Well I can’t be a family support worker all my life, can I!”