Sharing their blessings
‘Now that I have seen, I am responsible’ are the words that inspired a group of young ACU graduates to take on homelessness in Melbourne.
After reading that quote and seeing the devastation of homelessness in Melbourne’s city centre, ACU alumnus Laura Toole wanted to help and Blessing Bags was born. Since June 2015 the organisation has offered homeless and marginalised people in need bags full off essentials.
Laura has stepped down but her fellow ACU alums Hayley Gould and Christine Semerdjian have remained to keep the bags flowing even during a pandemic.
Law and global studies graduate Hayley joined the team as Fundraising Coordinator and took over as Director two years ago.
“Our bags contain a toothbrush and toothpaste, a muesli bar, sanitary items, shampoo and conditioner, body soap, deodorant, tissues, and we add something a little special, a hopeful note of encouragement,” Hayley said.
“We make up to 500 bags every two to three months which are then distributed across Melbourne. We distribute our bags through partner organisations such as crisis centres and at distribution days where we hand-deliver bags to people experiencing homelessness on the streets.
“We have distributed over 10,000 bags since our inception, and we have partner organisations that rely heavily on us. Bags include everyday items that many of us often take for granted. So being able to provide those struggling in our community with essentials helps give them dignity and makes a positive difference in their lives, no matter how small.
“The stories that stand out the most for me are the ones where people have held onto the note of encouragement in their bag. We are very aware that providing someone with a blessing bag doesn't get them housing or a job, but by putting a note of love in our bags, people are reminded that there are people who care about them.
“I remember a couple of years ago, I would provide the same man sleeping rough in the city with a regular blessing bag and one day he said to me, “you have no idea how excited I get to see what the note is going to say”. He added, “I always feel like they are written just for me”.”
Advocating for change
There are more than 24,000 homeless people across Victoria. International development studies graduate Christine is using the policy and research skills she learned at ACU to inform Blessing Bags advocacy work calling for long-term, evidence-based changes to end homelessness in Victoria.
“We’re continuing to grow our voice in the sector and this year we got recognised for our work, and were nominated in the Victorian Young Achiever of the Year Awards,” Christine said.
Christine and Hayley
“It’s not just about giving bags to people, it’s so much more than that, and it’s multi-layered. On a personal level, it’s forming a connection and taking the time to talk with people after we’ve given them a bag. On a community level, we bring people together to make the bags and they have a shared goal of giving back to the community. Our work meeting people and delivering bags, coupled with our policy and advocacy work saw us invited to write a submission to the recent Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria. All of these actions, on different scales, create positive changes.”
Getting through tough times
Before COVID-19 Blessing Bags distributed around 450 bags every three months to vulnerable Melbournians. This has dropped off due to the pandemic restrictions but they’re still working with community partners to distribute bags to vulnerable Victorians.
“Our usual process is to host a bagging day every couple of months with the community so we can get help packing the large volume of bags – anywhere between 300 and 500. We have also had less donations during this time, as people have been restricted in their ability to get items to our drop off points. This coupled with the supermarket limits on bulk buying means that we have had less stock. Nonetheless, we have still had wonderful support from the community and have been able to bag at some of the committee members’ houses. We have been making around 30 to 60 bags each month to distribute to those most in need during this time,” Hayley said.
Blessing Bags volunteers
Christine confirms they are still busy agitating for change.
“We’ve kept busy in the policy and advocacy space, since COVID-19 has really highlighted issues around social housing and welfare payments. Things have slowed down but we’re still getting the job done,” she said.
Going above and beyond
All this work making a difference for others is done on top of demanding day jobs. Hayley is Associate to a Judge of the Supreme Court.
“My role involves providing legal assistance and support. I attend Court with his Honour and my Co-Associate, open the Court and swear in any witnesses, and keep a record of notes. I also help his Honour with judgment writing, conduct any legal research and provide administrative support,” said Hayley.
“The highlights are definitely going to Court and being what I describe as an active fly on the wall – you get to watch some great advocacy while taking a small part in the proceeding by opening the Court, calling the matter and swearing in witnesses or empanelling the jury. Another highlight is the judgment writing process; it is a unique experience to be able to work side-by-side with an esteemed Judge and to see his incredible ability to problem solve and deliver eloquent reasons when deciding a matter.
“A big challenge is being able to respond and action tasks effectively in an often high-pressured setting such as the courtroom. My job can involve any task set by the Judge, so it requires creativity and learning to do all sorts of things, often for the first time.”
Christine has taken on a project coordinator role for Berry Street, whose services include foster care, therapeutic programs, family violence and support services, and the Berry Street School.
“I’m helping out with the COVID-19 response and doing some research work. I’m loving it, it’s a great feeling knowing my work is going towards helping people in Victoria. I started at Berry Street in the middle of stage four lockdown here in metropolitan Melbourne, which was challenging. But it’s been great getting stuck into it and working on a variety of interesting and some challenging projects. I’m working towards a career in public policy and advocacy and I’m very excited about what the future holds,” Christine said.
“Despite the challenges I think COVID-19 has really helped me focus on what my professional goals are, and where I want my career to go, and has really prompted me to think about how I am going to get there.”
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