Tapping into local skills to help regional communities thrive

By: Sam Kane   |   President, Golden Square Pool -Bendigo VIC

It was the summer of 2012. I was 14, school had just broken for the holidays, and for the next six weeks, I had my sights set on one thing – day after day at my local pool.

It’s a pastime every single one of us can relate to – riding the bike down the road, towel over the shoulder, sun beating onto your forehead and endless lollies and ice creams from the kiosk. Since 1918, people in my suburb of Golden Square in Bendigo, Victoria had been doing just that – and with it, creating endless memories.

However, that summer – there wasn’t a pool for me or anyone else to dive into. Instead, it had been closed by our local council, taking away the much-loved heart of our community.

In response, a group of neighbours got together and wrote letters, put ribbons on fences and advocated council, in the hope of changing the decision. After four months of tireless work, councillors voted to reopen our swimming pool, but on two conditions – that we, as a community, managed it entirely as volunteers, and that we made it successful again.

It was a hard slog – fundraising at a grassroots level, undertaking maintenance and gaining support, not to mention learning how to run an aquatic facility overnight. But succeed our little team of 20 did – re-opening our gathering space in 2013, and with it, re-establishing the summer rite of passage that was so important to our community.

Fast forward seven years and our mighty Golden Square Pool is stronger than ever. Our team of 90 volunteers aged 5-85 have saved the pool from closure twice again, welcomed 108,000 locals through the gates, and invested in the facility – transforming it into a vibrant, diverse and inclusive space for all, unlike anything else.

In 2018 when I was 19 – my first year of university and five years into our pool journey, I took on the role of President of our organisation. My move from afternoon kiosk volunteer to leader was something quite unexpected – sure, I’d taken on different leadership roles while I was at school, but this was next level. I remember feeling like I wasn’t capable, nor could I possibly lead our team.

But I took it one day and step at a time, relying on the volunteers around me to make sure that together, as a community – we could take our pool into the next phase of its life. At times I remember the difficulties I was faced with – having to lead, while I was still trying to learn.

To share our community’s story and continue to grow my own skills, last year I submitted a piece into ABC’s Heywire storytelling competition – and was privileged to be one of 55 national winners to attend the Heywire Regional Youth Summit in Canberra earlier this year.

Here, I met many remarkable young people, each making a difference in their local communities and who held dreams for a better regional Australia. After some big picture brainstorming, we broke off into six groups centred on key issues we identified as most pressing for young people and our communities.

My group focussed on the theme of ‘community resilience’ – in creating sustainable communities that look after one another, foster knowledge, and engage local resources. From this, we developed a program called Skillin’ It.

At its heart, this initiative aims to create what we believed was key to ensuring a resilient community – a grassroots culture where skills and information can be shared between all ages, links can be made and opportunities established, to help ensure our towns and cities are creative, adaptable, collaborative and prioritised their best asset – the generosity of people.

There’s a hope of people coming together as one community, starting conversations, and passing on knowledge, to help improve each other’s lives.

After we presented this vision in Parliament House – not-for-profits could apply for funding to implement the idea in their regional communities, thanks to the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal.

Six community groups from around the country, including in my home of Bendigo, received funding to adapt Skillin’ It – and over the next 12-months, will take it in directions we could never have anticipated. From festivals to school programs, it will now inspire regional communities to solve locally identified problems their way through the power of sharing and uniting.

I’m thrilled that it’s also being implemented in my own community, and that I can play a part in seeing an idea, that was developed around a table in Canberra, positively-impact the lives of others. In many ways it’s the program I wish I had here in Bendigo years ago, to help me tackle my role and make my community a better place.

Upon reflection, the time we’re currently living in makes such a program that much more important. While COVID-19 is placing a devastating toll on our health and economy – our community and social lives have been reimagined, and I believe something like this could be key in helping people reconnect and reinvent how they live and communicate as one collective. Moving forward, people should be at the centre, and our community’s wellbeing – its creation and retention, at the heart.

What I’ve learnt throughout my work over many years is you can’t discount the power of local communities coming together, because when they do – extraordinary things can, and do, happen.

My life has been changed by that fact – and I know, through programs just like Skillin’ It, others’ can be too.

See the recent round of FRRR-ABC Heywire grants.

Sep. 23, 2020

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