By Colin MacGillivray
IN times of crisis, volunteer agencies and aid workers often represent the lifeblood of a community.
During the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, one such organisation helping to keep the City of Whittlesea’s most vulnerable people afloat is Encompass Care.
The food-relief agency was already well established when the pandemic hit, running a community cafe for socially isolated people and providing free breakfast programs feeding more than 500 children a week in the cities of Whittlesea and Darebin.
The group also worked as a referral service for vulnerable people, providing food to those facing homelessness, family violence and other socially isolating factors.
But since the onset of the pandemic, Encompass Care has been unable to run its community cafe program or interact with its clients face-to-face.
Operations manager Gianna Donato said the charity was forced to rethink the way it provided aid to Whittlesea residents.
“We needed to find drivers, we needed resources, we needed money, there was an increase in demand and people were desperate,” she said.
“Council came to the party and we’ve been working collaboratively with Whittlesea Community Connections, who provided the drivers for us to deliver our packs.
“We do that through Fruit2Work, and they’ve been amazing. They’re an organisation of people who have been touched by the judicial system and have been rehabilitated into the workforce.
“Then council assisted us with funding towards the food packs so we could continue our service and meet the high demand, because there was an increase in demand of more than 30 per cent since lockdown started.”
Ms Donato said Mernda police officers had also helped Encompass Care, volunteering for two hours every Tuesday to help with heavy-duty deliveries.
“That’s enabled the police to see the other side,” she said.
“Often they deal with crime, but we deal with the issues that underlie why people sometimes turn to crime, whether it be vulnerability, financial hardship, addiction or anything else.”
Ms Donato said surging demand in the Mernda area had led Encompass Care to commit to opening a facility in the Mernda Village Community Activity Centre next year.
“Once the restrictions lift we will be opening up Encompass Care Mernda, which will run out of the village every Tuesday,” she said.
“There’s definitely been a huge increase in demand in the Mernda area. Mernda, Wollert – the new areas – we’ve noticed people are struggling.”
Ms Donato said the support of council, police and the Encompass Church, which loaned its premises rent-free to the charity to store food, had helped Encompass Care make a difference to hundreds of people across the City of Whittlesea.
“We do student packs for kids and more than 800 international university students who don’t have their family here,” she said.
“In a normal food parcel they will get a minimum of food for three days.
“They consist of non-perishables, frozen meals, refrigerated items and lots of snacks for children. We also do sanitary items and toiletries, as well as nappies and baby formula.”
City of Whittlesea administrator chair Lydia Wilson said Encompass Care formed part of a tapestry of vital aid organisations across the region.
She said it was important for council to assist charities so they could help others during a time of crisis.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have committed $500,000 to the Emergency Relief Fund. These funds are distributed to non-government organisations who provide a lifeline for our vulnerable community,” she said.
“Encompass Care is a fantastic organisation that has received council funding to meet the demands from people living in the City of Whittlesea who are struggling to make ends meet.
“Like most of the organisations that have received funding, Encompass Care is a vital community service providing food.”
Ms Wilson said charities across the city had been inundated with requests for food and other aid this year.
“During the pandemic, requests for food hampers to all of the agencies that are part of the Whittlesea Emergency Relief Network has more than quadrupled; from around 80 requests pre-COVID-19 to around 350 every week,” she said.
“I would like to thank all of the organisations that are providing direct material needs as well as counselling and other support services during this time. The work they do, which is largely undertaken by volunteers, makes a difference to people experiencing hardship.”
Ms Donato said being able to support people through some of the toughest times of their lives made all the work Encompass Care did worth it.
“We had one guy say to us, ‘when I felt like I was at the end of it, I knew I could turn to you’,” she said.
“Often people think it’s just about food, but it’s not about food – it’s about being there when a person is down and out.
“It’s about being an agency people can turn to and know that someone cares on the other side of the line. That’s who we are.
“Everyone has pulled together, that’s what’s been beautiful about this.”
People can call Encompass Care on 0422 461 847 from 9am to 3pm Monday to Friday for emergency food relief.
People can also visit encompasscarevic.org.au for more information.