For the Love of It!

I have just stepped down after four years as President of Deaf Sport and Recreation Victoria (DSRV). I think the  best way to describe my involvement with DSRV is BUSY! In fact it often seemed like it was another part-time job. Despite this I enjoyed the involvement. Certainly the things that I learnt and the contacts that I made were invaluable. You never really do anything for nothing. There is always some sort of reward driving you on. Sometimes it is for the recognition, sometimes its for the skill development and at other times it is simply because it gives you a feel good factor. You would not want to do it for nothing, I can tell you that now, but the rewards go beyond the monetary.

The early days of my involvement in DSRV were particularly intense. I took over at a time when the organisation was perhaps at its lowest ebb. It was a once proud organisation that had its foundations demolished from underneath it. Previously it was  based at the old Victorian Deaf Society at Wellington Parade. The Victorian Deaf Society, for a number of valid reasons, sold the property and moved to modern offices. In doing so it sold the clubrooms and the spiritual home of DSRV. From having a clubroom, a bar, snooker tables and a central meeting place for Deaf community groups suddenly it had nothing. What is more it had one of its major fundraising revenues taken from it. It used to coordinate car parking at the premises when football and cricket was on at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was a nice little nest egg. When I worked  at the Victorian Deaf Society back in 1996 it used to appall me that certain hearing staff would complain about the car-parking because it messed up the lawns on the grounds – It was a small price to pay, in my view, as it was money that DSRV really needed.

But anyway the Victorian Deaf Society sold up and moved. DSRV had to up and move with it. I know not what happened but the potential windfall that should have eventuated from the Melbourne 2005 Deaf Olympics did not happen. This is despite DSRV, who were then known as The Victorian Deaf Sports and Social Club, playing a major role in winning the bid for Australia.  The assets from the old club, the money, the furniture, the snooker tables etc were somehow whittled away to the point that when I took over as President, DSRV was technically insolvent. The accounts were checked and despite having money in the bank it was worked out that the money in the bank would not have covered what was owed. In fact DSRV were $ 4000 in the red. What’s more the Victorian Deaf Society had, some years before, drastically cut its subsidy to the DSRV Coordinators wages. While it provided office space for DSRV it meant that DSRV had a large chunk of its revenue removed.

So the hard work began to resurrect the organisation.   A new board was recruited with a particular skill set. A new Coordinator was recruited. A wonderful 5 year plan that had previously been developed was scrapped and the organisation simply planned year by year to survive. The organisation was re-branded with a new logo. There was a focus not just on sport and recreation but also on health and well-being. An aggressive strategy of developing partnerships and reestablish trust with the Victorian Government was embarked on. Grants were applied for to give the organisation a  focus and to develop a track record of innovation and success. All of this was done with a Board of volunteers and a Coordinator who worked just 2 days a week, very much underpaid and who in reality often worked double that time. It required commitment, tenacity and not just a little bit of skill.

We certainly made mistakes along the way. But to make progress one needs to make mistakes. We certainly sometimes lost our desire and energy.  I, in the last year, was not particularly effective but the Board carried me along.  And there was conflict. An organisation, though, cannot operate without conflict. There has to be conflict. There has to be a robust exchange of ideas. Without it change cannot happen. That people are prepared to challenge and argue is a sign that they have passion and desire. John Dewey knew what he was talking about when he said. ”  Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.

Today, despite having a large chunk of its revenue removed, DSRV is relatively healthy.  It, however, relies on grants. What it means is that it has very few assets. These grants, while they provide DSRV with an operational focus, have to be expended. Every year DSRV must hope that these grants are renewed because if they are not, the organisation will fold. It is a stressful existence.  It survives largely on the goodwill of its Board and the willingness of its Coordinator to put in the extra yards. Its survival is not helped by having support from organisations like Vicdeaf slowly whittled away.  Vicdeaf, for example, used to technically be the employer of the DSRV worker. The DSRV worker was on a Vicdeaf contract and Vicdeaf provided payroll support. Very early in my time as President Vicdeaf asked that DSRV set themselves up as the official employer of the Coordinator and removed payroll support. This meant that DSRV had to change how it supported its Coordinator. It also meant that somehow DSRV, with a group of volunteers had to process the Coordinator’s pay. Thankfully Auslan Services, a small family business, agreed to take over the payroll. If it had not the demands on the volunteer Board to process the Coordinator’s pay every fortnight with  tax, super and the like would have been immense. Vicdeaf do still support the Coordinator through a $5000 salary subsidy and by providing free office space. DSRV are grateful for that.

At one point in the last year I had to argue to try and retain some funding for DSRV. It was a relatively small amount but in perspective was 20% of the total finances that DSRV had in the bank at that time. DSRV had to argue strongly to retain that  funding. We pointed out, for example, that the Board were providing many thousands of dollars in volunteer support for DSRV.  Now if I were to charge DSRV at the hourly rate I am paid at present, and for the travel time and KMs it took to serve as President from Ballarat that is 110 kms from Melbourne, DSRV would owe me in excess of $50 000. Auslan Services have every right to charge for payroll but do not. Ryan Gook, Managing Director of Auslan Services, served on the Board and Auslan Services also provided financial input in the form of sponsorship. Penny Gillet, qualified physiotherapist, gave up her time every Wednesday for 12 weeks to coordinate the Healthy Body Image program for Young Deaf People. She wrote and successfully obtained the grant for this program and managed all of the funding. Vicki Li and Sarah Maree Gillepsie redesigned DSRV website free of charge. Normally this would have cost DSRV thousands of  dollars. DSRV receives many, many hours of free labour. I think people forget the commitment that is required for an organisation like DSRV to survive. I found it offensive, knowing what the Board provide, that more able organisations would even consider removing support and funding that is, quite frankly, essential for DSRV to survive.

There are other small Deaf community organisations that also face many challenges to survive. Last weekend I partook in the Victorian Deaf Golf Championships. Over thirty people took part. Accommodation for its members, trophies and dinner were all organised by this dedicated band of people. I recall a time where the Victorian Deaf Golf Club struggled to get more than four people to its golf days. Through the sheer hard work of its volunteer committee it has prospered and grown. It receives no funding whatsoever. Without the dedication of its volunteer committee it would have folded many years ago. Even in the bad times it took the efforts of a few dedicated people to keep it afloat. This is the story of many Deaf sporting and social groups. They etch out an existense on the minimal funding that they get from their membership fees and through fundraising events like BBQs at Bunnings.

My hat goes off to these people. I know first hand of the dedication and commitment that is required to keep these organisations afloat and it is immense. Less than a decade ago Victorian Deaf community groups could plan their meetings to coincide with the Friday Deaf Club at Wellington Parade. They would finish their meetings with a drink at the bar and a yarn in the club. Now this is all gone. They have to fight to get a meeting time at the John Lovett Centre. The lifts shut off at 6pm so that someone must wait downstairs with a swipe card to let attendees in.  It is totally souless. I think the late and great Deaf community advocate that the Centre is named after, John Lovett, would have been appalled. Times have changed for sure.

These organisations are the life blood of the Deaf community, without them there would be no community. The hard work of these dedicated volunteers needs to be given the recognition it deserves – Perhaps it should start with recognition and greater support from the bigger more wealthy organisations that have the capacity to do more. Think about it – I ask employees of  these organisations to consider why they are where they are today, why their salary is paid, why they have food on the table??? – The answer my friend is not, as Bob Dylan would say, blowing in the wind, the answer is DEAF PEOPLE! Remember that while you a sipping on that glass or Merlot – wont you!

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