By Colin MacGillivray
THE organisers of an online network linking City of Whittlesea residents to charities and support services are searching for assistance to keep the program running.
The Whittlesea Community Support Network is the brainchild of former Mernda Primary School chaplain Chantelle Olafsen and has helped hundreds of community members find support during the COVID-19 pandemic through a Facebook group.
Ms Olafsen started the network for the Mernda Primary School community as part of her chaplain role, but saw demand for support services was widespread and expanded the program to the broader Whittlesea community.
“It started as a school support network but then we went online and it became available not only to the school but to the rest of the community as well,” she said.
“We’ve been working with Mernda police and were able to connect them into our school, as well as with things like community pantries and support groups, so it’s been a win-win for everyone.
“People will be sent everywhere, and one organisation won’t know what another organisation is doing. Our goal has been to get all the organisations in the area to be part of this network and we then know who does what.
“We can stop people being sent all over the place, and we’re able to know exactly what services to refer people to depending on what their needs are.”
Ms Olafsen was recently informed her chaplain role at the primary school would no longer be supported by the Federal Government, leaving her long-term role within the support network uncertain.
Mernda Police Station Senior Sergeant Daniel Jamison, who coordinates the network along with Ms Olafsen, said the news was a blow.
“Chantelle was a critical component to the success of it, so we’re a little bit disappointed the funding isn’t there,” he said.
“She not only fulfilled her role as a chaplain within the school, she fulfilled a role as a community connector and really linked in with all of the other groups and brought everyone together, which is what you need to make a support network a success.
“Not having that position funded anymore has created a gap in that area. [The network] can continue, but it’s not going to continue at the same level of engagement as if we had that person in place.”
Sen Sgt Jamison said police would continue to provide logistical support to charities and volunteer groups such as food-relief agency Encompass Care, but the group would search for a replacement for Ms Olafsen’s role.
“At the moment Chantelle is still doing that work on her own time on a voluntary-basis because she sees the value in it and doesn’t want to let it go. She still wants to bring that value into the community, but it’s not a viable long-term solution for us,” he said.
“We are looking for an opportunity where we can get someone to step into that role as the community connector – someone who is willing to build those relationships.
“It has only been a recent change, so we don’t have a solution or an outcome at this stage.
“We want to reassure the Whittlesea community that we are there to support them and the support from the group will be ongoing, but we’re looking for that person to be the community connector and bring the support services together.
“I’d love to keep Chantelle in the role if possible, because she has been amazing, and we would not have achieved what we have without her in the position.
“Ideally it has to be someone with experience and who has those connections. That’s the benefit of Chantelle – because she was in that chaplaincy role, you naturally build connections with support services. She had the links and the contacts to be able to to influence and bring people together.”
Sen Sgt Jamison said the group was open to exploring avenues to secure financial backing for Ms Olafsen to continue her role in the support network, including the potential to apply for funding from the City of Whittlesea.
Ms Olafsen said she hoped to be able to continue with the network.
“We’ve got a lot of plans around early intervention in schools that we don’t want to abandon, but at the moment that’s all up in the air,” she said.
“There were a few new initiatives that we were planning on putting into place, but it’s a bit tricky at the moment.”
Sen Sgt Jamison appealed for anyone interested in helping to co-ordinate the network to make contact via the Wellbeing Network City of Whittlesea Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/2631944300393297
He said even if Ms Olafsen was not able to continue co-ordinating the group, she had left a legacy to build on.
“I’d like to thank Chantelle, and Mernda Primary School for allowing Chantelle the time and the opportunity to build the network and support the community the way she has,” he said.
“What she ended up doing was outside of the school network and she was bringing the whole Whittlesea community together and supporting them, but the school backed her.
“On behalf of police in the Whittlesea service area, we are extremely grateful for everything she’s been able to achieve.”