Bendigo Community Health Services is home to more than 50 services and 250 staff. Take a journey through our organisation to learn more about our services and programs by meeting some of our wonderful staff through our blog Discovering BCHS…
SHE was born in the US to Mexican migrant parents, converted to Islam while doing volunteer work with disabled children in Pakistan, then married an Australian citizen she met in Miami and moved Down Under.
Now Conchita Ollivier is living in Bendigo and helping Karen and Afghan refugee families who resettle here find their feet when they first arrive in their new home town.
Conchita’s own multicultural background and experience moving to the flip side of the world make her ideal for her role with Bendigo Community Health Services’ settlement team.
“Our goal is to help them integrate and become independent,” she says. “We focus on English, education and employment and build their capacity to reach their potential.
“I want my clients to always feel they have been treated with respect and had a fighting chance here: that we’ve given them a fair go and helped them understand Australian values; that they are completely included so that they truly feel part of us.”
There is, however, much more to this quietly-spoken case worker than first meets the eye.
Conchita studied psychology, biology and social work at university, at the same time working with autistic children using “applied behaviour analysis” therapy to develop their life skills.
She took three months off one summer to go to Pakistan where she used that knowledge to assist families with children suffering serious, often undiagnosed disabilities.
“One family had a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and all she could do was lie there on her back,” Conchita recalls.
“For three months, we applied all the exercises I knew and were trying to figure out how to get her more mobile. By the end of the trip, I was able to organise someone to make her a walker, like what a baby would use but bigger, and she was able to greet her dad at the door.
“It was amazing - she had no mobility before and in three short months that was possible. I always wondered what more she could do if she had access to the right treatment.”
Conchita describes that trip to Karachi 16 years ago as an incredible growth experience that taught her a lot about human resilience and the importance of not “sweating the small stuff”.
“The living conditions were not the best. Coming from a middle-class family in the US, I was used to a lot of comforts but I had to live like everyone else there.
“It was good for my character and encouraged me to continue my health profession studies.
“But what really impacted me in Pakistan was, I couldn’t believe how happy the kids were – they were barefoot, playing in the streets, may not have even had a proper meal that day, but they were laughing and seemed so happy and content with their lives.
“I look at children back home and so many have depression and other issues, they’re almost swallowed up by the world’s small issues. Then you have these people with significant problems who are still putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.”
Conchita is fluent in both Spanish and English, understands Urdu and has learnt to read Arabic, the language of the Koran, since becoming a Muslim while volunteering in Pakistan.
She married and moved to Melbourne in 2002, and has been in Bendigo for the past six years with husband Sameer, a mechanical engineer, and sons Adam, 8, and Joseph, 5. Baby number three is due in September.
“We love it here,” she says of Bendigo, “everyone has been so friendly and welcoming.
“It’s very different from living in a big city but we wanted a place with that country feel for the kids to experience. Even though we are in a residential area, we thought we were living on a farm and when we first arrived, we even got two lambs to have in the back yard.”
Conchita spent her early years here home caring for her boys, then returned to work when they became more independent.
She started at BCHS last December, but has also been extremely active in the community.
“I was always out and about doing volunteer work,” she says. “I was involved in the Muslim community and the Believe in Bendigo campaign. I know a lot of people in town – Muslim, non-Muslim – because I am an active participant. I don’t stay home much.”
Conchita has been part of an interfaith panel visiting local secondary schools and is very supportive of the special needs community, especially families dealing with autism.
She is also a big proponent of organic food and has set up a small delivery service called Organic Town, which she operates on top of her refugee work with BCHS.
“I noticed that my kids thrived so much when they were having good, organic, non-processed food, so I have been a great advocate for that.
“A lot of families don’t give their kids organic food because they can’t afford it, so I thought if I could source it for my family and then pass it on to our local community, it’s a win-win.
“I meet a lot of people through my deliveries. Sometimes I worry are they going to be shocked when they see this Muslim lady at their door. I have had a few people think I am just there propagating my religion, but I just say no, I have your organic delivery!”
Organic Town has taken a back seat this year, because Conchita is recovering from a badly broken femur suffered during her family’s annual holiday home to visit relatives in America.
“It happened while I was ice skating in Las Vegas on December 29,” she says of the injury that required two rounds of surgery and left her in a wheelchair initially.
She remains on crutches almost five months later.
“You know, we tried to play it safe,” she sighs. “We don’t gamble, we don’t drink, we didn’t go to ‘the Strip’ but I still got injured.
“We had to stay in the US an extra month because I couldn’t fly home. Then I had to fly back business class because of my leg, which I would have enjoyed if I wasn’t in so much pain.
“I found out I was pregnant when I got home – I would have been even before my accident - and had to be awake for my second surgery as they only used a local anaesthetic.”
Conchita plans to take maternity leave later this year but is keen to return and continue her work with Bendigo’s refugee community
She is proud of what BCHS offers the new arrivals and delighted by their success stories.
“We have a high employment rate among the Karen and Afghan at the moment, which is really pleasing.
“One Afghan family is the first among their community to purchase a house, which is a really big step. It just takes one to encourage the others they can also achieve their dreams - show them that they have done it and are still okay.
“To be a migrant in their circumstances and have bought a house is a big accomplishment.”
Conchita loves helping people and is grateful to BCHS for giving her an opportunity.
“I am very thankful that someone took a chance on me – I am a bit of a wild card because my work experience is all over the place.
“And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have a lack of confidence, partly because of wearing a scarf. I worry sometimes it might not be the image people want representing their company.”
But Conchita is determined to do everything she can to promote harmony and understanding.
It’s one of the reasons she returns to her birth-land every year around Christmas.
“My parents are Christians and my sons get to experience it with their cousins.
“It is important for them to have good relations with different faiths, as they do within our own family. I grew up in a very open-minded environment and I want my children to treat everyone the same and know that they can break bread with anyone.”