Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

COVID-19 and the Ku-ring-gai Electorate

Civilian Army 2020

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS (Ku-ring-gai) (17:34:43): COVID-19 has brought economic, health and societal disruption on a scale not experienced in the past 100 years. But in the darkest of recent times a light has shone through because of the civic-mindedness of the Ku-ring-gai community. To protect ourselves, our families and our loved ones we have self-isolated, worked from home and done what we can to stay indoors as much as possible. Three months ago many businesses closed and schools were largely without students—rightly so, given the infectious potential of COVID-19, which has devastated most of the world. Despite how far our State has come in only a few months, the virus is still out there. Although our lives are going back to some degree of normality, the seniors in our population and those with pre-existing health conditions must still be very cautious.

When the pandemic reached our shores we saw the number of cases increase by hundreds each day. Our seniors were told to stay at home for their own safety and I saw a threat to our local voluntary organisations. Before the pandemic, the organisations that gave help to the most vulnerable in Ku-ring-gai were largely populated by volunteers who were seniors. We urgently needed a group of younger volunteers and I came up with the idea of a civilian army. For over 40 years KNC––a not‑for‑profit organisation formally known as the Ku-ring-gai Neighbourhood Centre––has been providing social support services to our local seniors and to people with a disability, including personal shopping, transport, phone check-ins and other community care tasks.

I reached out to Michele Bell, CEO of KNC and the 2020 Ku-ring-gai Woman of the Year. Michele agreed that we urgently needed younger volunteers and liked my idea of forming a civilian army. I contacted the principals of our local independent schools, who immediately wanted to be involved. We partnered with the schools under the leadership of the KNC team, who liaised with our voluntary organisations. We recruited students, staff, parents and alumni as volunteers to assist the members of the Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby communities most impacted by COVID-19, and to reassure the vulnerable that they were not alone if they needed help.

In conjunction with this focused recruitment we put out a general call for volunteers to the community through social media. It was amazing to see the selflessness of community members wanting to help. In only a week the civilian army was formed, and was up and running. Our first task was to letterbox every home in my electorate with a person over the age of 70 to increase community awareness about the services that were available to the vulnerable. We did this with the assistance of families, students, alumni and cadets from Abbotsleigh School, Barker College, Knox Grammar School, Loreto Normanhurst, Pymble Ladies' College and Ravenswood School for Girls. Almost immediately, KNC received calls from people who required assistance.

Over the past few months KNC and the civilian army have helped many vulnerable people and families in our area by collecting and delivering pharmaceutical supplies to individuals, performing grocery shopping, putting out garbage, collecting and dropping off library books, and packing 80 to 100 boxes of donated fresh fruit and vegetables each day. The boxes of fresh produce were distributed amongst numerous charities that saw an influx in requests for help, including Fusion Sydney North, Meals on Wheels, Hornsby Connect, Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Women's Shelter and a number of churches. Some boxes were also diverted to support the homeless. In Turramurra, Kipling's Garage Bar changed its normal business to provide low-cost meals for seniors. All who received the donated goods were extremely grateful for the kindness shown and some of our volunteers received tearful thanks.

Volunteering during this crisis has allowed our community to work together on a common objective to help others. It has also alleviated the loneliness experienced by both volunteers and clients alike. In addition to helping the vulnerable in our community, I spoke to many local business owners and managers over the course of three days. With a group of volunteers, we delivered information bundles to the small businesses in the commercial and retail hubs of the electorate. Those small business packs provided information on rent reduction, mediation services and government grants that were available. It was an opportunity for me to understand the economic impact of the shutdown on small business owners and to see that they were clearly struggling. I hope I was able to give them some moral support during what has been an extremely tough time.

The overwhelming community support for the civilian army did not come as a surprise. I acknowledge and express my appreciation to Margaret Selby, Maddy Fox, Rowena Dudgeon, Luke Hicks, Helen Clarke, Libby Parker, Mariel Lombard, Annabelle Osborne and Laura McGilvray from the participating schools. I thank KNC, its staff and volunteers led by Michele Bell, and the students, staff and adults involved for making such a positive difference in our community.

As Winston Churchill once said, "We make a life by what we give."