Unlikely Partners – Unusual Results

fleet of Pacers yachts sailing off Wynyard

In light of the Government’s push towards “social inclusion” for those who remain on the fringes of our communities, why aren’t more doors opening to real places at life’s table? Why aren’t we seeing more of the clubs and organisations that gather people in friendship around ideas, interests and activities opening their doors and broadening their welcome to the disadvantaged in our communities?

This is a story about unlikely partners joining to gain a reprieve for an endangered club by opening its doors and facing the challenges that come with real and full inclusion.

Up until 2009, the Wynyard Yacht Club had a strong base of multiple, boat-owning families focused on competitive sailing. However, family fragmentation, changing workforce patterns and routines, changing boating trends, new and different recreational opportunities and an increasing number of sports and activities competing for their younger generations were beginning to threaten the club’s existence. Members were watching their club shrink as their children left for more pressing places and interests. Talk of arresting the slide focused mainly on attracting new families to bolster the original family-based model.

In 2006 the Wynyard Yacht Club was held together by a small group of members with work interests that included mining, heavy machinery manufacturing, small businesses, teaching, farming, fishing and non-government services working within communities to help them embrace their disenfranchised members. They were a disparate group mainly interested in competitive sailing but some with a passive attraction to anything nautical.

Within these differences, opportunities would arise to rejuvenate the club by welcoming others but not without a challenge to the personal values of the members involved.

The importance of home is well acknowledged in our society. Work, is a stable element when unemployment figures continually fall into low, single digit percentages although, and this is a big qualifier, for those missing out, the pain of rejection is not eased by impersonal statistics that carry no reference to how being unemployed feels. Well-being, founded on the security of a home and work and, to a large extent these days, home-based, lone-electronic, leisure time activities threatens the existence of the clubs and associations that have traditionally given us a sense of community.

Places like not-for-profit clubs and associations are increasingly endangered by rapid social change but they can be saved by adjusting their purposes and the values that guide them.

This story illustrates how the opportunities that often lie dormant within many clubs can be captured to rejuvenate an original charter and make room for others in the best sense of “social inclusion”.

In the yachting fraternity in Tasmania there is a tradition whereby Yachting Tasmania (YT), Tasmania’s national peak sailing club body, replaces its fleet of Pacer sail training dinghies every two years; on-selling the used fleets to yacht clubs, schools and other organisations as a way of promoting and stimulating the sport.

At up to $25,000 for a fleet of six boats, it isn’t hard to see why they don’t reach the North West Region of Tasmania. In the capital city, Hobart, these fleets are so numerous that there is a teams’ racing program run by yacht clubs that attracts up to twenty schools. Isolated rural populations don’t have groups big and financial enough to consider putting in a bid.
The Wynyard Yacht Club (WYC) was bemoaning this situation when it came to the attention of two club members who were managing not-for-profit organisations. The first, North West Residential Support Services (NWRSS), provides support and advocacy to people who have a disability and the other, BIGhART, partners with artists and communities to run projects that empower communities to change through the arts. Both were looking for opportunities to engage the people they supported in community activities that held strong possibilities for on-going social inclusion.

NWRSS and BIGhART approached the WYC with the proposition that they form a three-way partnership. Each would contribute $5,000 and between them pursue $5,000 in sponsorship towards purchasing a fleet of these Pacers. The YT was asked to support the bid by discounting the price to $20,000 as well as giving the group first option and time to raise the money. The YT, fortunately, welcomed the opportunity to counter criticism that Hobart clubs always had an advantage.

NWRSS’ vehicle suppliers, Motors, and Toyota, each donated $1,000 while the WYC and BIGhART were able to attract sponsors including Ability Employment and various individual philanthropists for the other $5000. With the cooperation of the YT a fleet of Pacers finally reached the North West Coast in late 2006.

Among the three principal partners, the agreed purpose of purchasing these boats was for increasing the club’s membership. NWRSS and BIGhART gained a stake of enough significance to work towards including the people they represented.

Tasmania, as with most other places is rife with “Try this and Try that” activities in the name of social inclusion for marginalised groups but most of these tokenistic one-offs offer no supportive avenues to continue the activity or indeed, ongoing membership. In other words, most offer no real pathways to inclusion. The WYC, however, now had a chance to take a different approach to sharing its club’s assets and modelling a real welcome.

The summer Saturday morning program that developed around the Pacers, was open to anyone interested in the club’s aquatic activities and, from the beginning, had a supportive pathway to membership.
There is nothing like a communal meal to express a welcome. A breakfast of juice, fruit, bacon and eggs, sponsored by the local Woolworth’s supermarket, was offered to start the sailing day.

The chance to try sailing quickly attracted up to thirty people each session, with participants ranging from children to retirees. The numbers were managed by having the club’s accomplished younger sailors helming the Pacers, supported by the club’s patrol boat and inflatable. Everyone who presented at each Saturday morning session got to sail and the skilled young helms people revelled in the chance to display their sailing and leadership skills.

A letter to the Editor of the local newspaper at the time from a passer-by who decided to join the program extolled the opportunity the club was providing for its young members to teach and lead.

The natural restlessness of young people, particularly when waiting for a turn in the Pacers, was offset by having them help in the patrol craft and inflatable as well as introducing four of NWRSS’ kayaks. The kayaks, while providing a popular holding activity, became a gentle introduction to the water for some children who were apprehensive about jumping straight into a Pacer. The two-up kayaks provided a way of getting severely physically disabled people onto the water.

Later, a river dinghy was introduced by NWRSS for those participants, including people with a disability, who were particularly interested in fishing.

With the help of three other sponsors; Murfet Harriss Building Consultants, Saunders Higgins Insurance Brokers and the Saunders Street Clinic, three Sabot yachts were purchased for training juniors.
The WYC, with a grant from the Waratah-Wynyard Council, increased the number of life jackets to make sure that everyone on the water was safe. Sunscreen was also made available.

The opportunity to train as a crew member in the patrol craft and inflatable was offered for some of the younger people who were eager to prepare for the Provisional Boat Licence which is available from twelve years of age. The club was extending its aquatic activities and strengthening its attraction to young people, an important direction for ensuring community relevance and the gaining of new members.
Both NWRSS and BIGhART brought a range of equipment and expertise to the club including a TV and DVD player, eight ball table, table soccer, table games and a mobile pizza oven. Staff from both organisations joined the club, adding hospitality, digital technology and youth and disability support worker skills.

Club members, particularly the younger ones, attracted school friends. Adult members, who did not have their own boats but crewed on larger boats, were able to take their kids for a sail. The Pacers were particularly attractive for family and friendship groupings.

At the heart of this renewed attraction to the club was the availability of boats for a small fee. The old cornerstone of boat ownership had been shifted to include the communal sharing of club-owned boats.
NWRSS identified two young men with disabilities that the organisation was supporting who had shown a strong interest in water-based activities and started assisting them to get to the Saturday sailing sessions. Both young men required intensive support but the natural structure of the club with its adult supervision and strong adult-and-peer group modelling allowed paid support to be quickly withdrawn. They were both sponsored into membership and became very proud of the club Minutes, letters, and membership cards they received.

There is nothing more powerful than useful skills to open the doors for inclusion. One of these young men became trained to a level of being a valuable asset to the club. He could prepare patrol boats for launching, including all of the equipment checks and prepare the buoys, ropes, chains and anchors for setting the race course. On water, he could be reliably directed to drop and pull buoys and anchors, throw and manage tow ropes and take the helm under direction. This young man’s life was rebuilding perfectly with strong male mentors and freely given relationships. He was thriving and past behaviours that had resulted in periods in jail disappeared. The tragedy in this story is that he was moved by a government agency to a cheaper but less effective support arrangement in another town.  Everything was lost and an aimless, empty life soon saw him back in prison again. If government agencies don’t seriously include the “social inclusion” factor in their life-defining decisions about individuals, then the community is hardly likely to take the concept seriously.

The other young man mastered kayaking and the jib position in a Pacer to reliably participate, under the direction of his mentor helmsperson, for the full duration of offshore club races. This young man became naturally included in the club’s social activities. The younger club members were discovering his warm personality and sense of humour as well as the aquatic skills they all shared. The opportunity to display common interests is one of the quickest routes to inclusion. In the WYC disability was rapidly being disarmed as a barrier to inclusion.

A number of the families that have been attracted to the club have children who have a disability. One of the attractions to these families is the sensitivity that comes from the club’s conscious recognition of and positive exposure to, disability.

As for BIGhART’s concern for young people, not well-connected to their communities, they were already on the yacht club doorstep. The club’s location was a natural precinct for impoverished children, where activities like fishing and swimming as well as space for hanging out and mucking around in were available for free.

These kids were known to be from poor families, and either struggling with or not attending school. When these children, as they often did, asked for a go at something, it was, to their surprise, granted. They started regularly helping with the patrol boat and inflatable. Initially, not a lot of interest was shown in the sailing but this is slowly changing.

One of these young boys was temporarily barred from attending school. He could not concentrate on a task beyond a few minutes and bullying behaviour was part of his response to others. But, he learnt to sail a boat solo, concentrating on this at times for up two hours. Eventually this boy became the first to rig up and the last to leave the water; the first to help with de-rigging and packing up and the last to leave the club premises. He became protective towards the disabled members as well as the first to help a senior club member whose health limited physical capacity. He sailed on this man’s large boat and showed that he could be trained to manage a crew station.

Unfortunately, a year into his involvement he was still periodically struggling to manage his anger and was barred from the club for a month for fighting. This, to club members, is part of the challenge. Relapses are to be expected. They need to be dealt with firmly but countered with renewed opportunities to engage. An invitation has been extended to this boy to negotiate a return to the club.

These young people learn well in environments where creative, practical learning opportunities combine to produce benefits for individuals and their surrounding communities. BIGhART’s theatrical productions are rich developmental environments as are activities that combine water, weather, boats and the people around them.

One of the most moving gestures from this group came after a couple of months of involvement when, led by the oldest boy in the group, they spontaneously approached and shook the hands of two of the men who had been offering the opportunities. When you consider that at that stage they had been given no assurance that this opportunity would continue, it was most likely generated out of a fear of losing something that was becoming valuable to them. It was all they had to offer and was a far more powerful gesture than they ever imagined. The boy who led the approach was also showing the embryonic signs of leadership for which he has never been acknowledged but can now be harnessed for the benefit of the community.

This group often queried the ownership of the boats. It became apparent that their experience lacked any understanding of club membership and communal ownership. Their growing understanding of this is very apparent in how they are now caring for boats and club equipment. There has been no vandalism against the club since including these young people. This was not the case prior to their involvement. The only problem now is an overzealous protection of the club whereby they revert to thuggish behaviour if they hear, for instance, that other kids might be going to vandalise the club. Inclusion can diffuse the rivalry and jealousy that often lies behind vandalism. This group is learning how to use sharing to diffuse conflict.

Attempts at social inclusion are a challenge to our coveted but flawed belief in fairness. Invariably the question of money arises, particularly when full inclusion requires membership and participation costs that are not geared towards the poor in our community.

While this has to be eventually resolved by the club at a constitutional level there has been a variety of responses from members to neutralise the issue.

These responses highlight the ideological differences among members. They include; strong beliefs in the traditional user-pays principle; being comfortable with taxpayer funded subsidisation, and personal philanthropy. These different points of view, as they should, stimulate healthy and sometimes frictional debate without damaging the important fabric of opinions that make the club truly representational of its broader community. It would be a poor club indeed that relied on only one of these contribution pathways.

Personal philanthropy from some club members is ensuring sponsored memberships for children who need them. Government grants are keeping boats and equipment up-to-date and business discounts and donations are keeping club assets in good order.

Concessions may be necessary if the club’s welcome is to truly embrace people who have to live on government benefits.
Extending concessions by way of subsidising, discounting, scholarships or the recognition of in-kind contributions need to be a consideration. Concessions of this nature, while not adding full monetary weight, might be better measured by the good they do for the individual and the community goodwill they generate. Healthy communities rely on a significant component of social, as well as monetary capital.

Feelings of belonging in such groups are strengthened, not by individual divisions of wealth, prowess, or importance but by how strong a feeling of equality the group imparts to its members.

Hosting skills are rarely listed as a requirement for club office bearers, particularly the leadership role. Clubs like the WYC could once rely on the familiarity with and attraction to the sport generated through families, to keep membership up. Introducing the sport to newcomers and strangers without this exposure and extending opportunities to marginalised people is no easy task and will only succeed through sensitive hosting skills. Hosting requires keeping a watchful eye that pathways remain open and unimpeded. The leader of the day needs to be on hand during interfaces with the public and when potential members are approaching the club. The leader may need to place hosting ahead of active personal participation during their period in the role.

Food is an important factor within community groups and needs to be geared to the full range of disposable incomes. The canteen at the WYC, like many clubs, is a source of revenue that takes for granted that all members have available disposable income. Introducing strategies like donated, subsidised, or low cost site-prepared food all challenge the canteen as an income stream. The loss of revenue in these directions has to be weighed against social responsibility. Business, specifically geared for the market place, is one of the most powerful institutions in our lives. While there are many sound business principles that can be applied to not-for-profit community-based organisations they can’t be truly successful if they align themselves exclusively with the business model.

This was poignantly illustrated early in the inclusion process when one group of children had the money to buy at will from the canteen, while another small group huddled at the door pooling a handful of small change and trying to work out what they might be able to buy that could be shared between them. Clubs and associations need to build hurtful-and-damaging stigmatisation out of their operation, particularly where vulnerable children are involved. Personal philanthropy is creating canteen credit vouchers so children with limited access to money can be rewarded for the work they do around the club.

The breakfasts are a good example of using donations and grants. The two thousand dollar grant from Woolworth’s will provide breakfasts for the Saturday morning group for four years, plenty of time to look for funding continuation. There are club members, for instance, interested in making free soup from community garden produce, filling water bottles with tap water and providing a free supply of water based cordial.
These directions while excellent solutions might seem at first glance to undermine tradition and income streams but need to be explored for their longer term benefits.

All clubs need to be purposefully, morally and ethically attractive. They need to believe that the bonds built through inclusion are what keep our communities happy, educated, healthy and safe and that generosity pathways are good for our individual health.

At the time of completing this article, the Saturday morning sessions are growing in numbers with a very strong feeling of camaraderie and equality. More families are joining, as we have been told, because they like the generosity and chance for their children to belong to and contribute to an inclusive group.

Neal Rodwell
March 2012