JENNY Melmeth can finally draw breath now after surviving the end-of-financial-year crunch of project deadlines.
As service co-ordinator for the Tenterfield Social Development Committee, her days involve juggling funding grants and overseeing the service specifications required for each grant. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, but she’s pragmatic about it.
“If you don’t do it, you don’t get the money,” she said.
The committee was formed in 1989 at the encouragement of the Department of Community Services (DOCS) to provide an infrastructure for grants to be applied for and fulfilled. Back then it had a staff of two.
Tenterfield Family and Youth Support was the first service put in place under the committee’s umbrella, followed by the Aboriginal Family Links project in 2006 and the Drake Supported Playgroup in 2008.
Tenterfield Youth Connections came on board in 2009, and the cherry on the local social development cake has been the opening of the Tenterfield Hub to provide community access to these services and much more.
“It’s very rewarding, but we do experience a lot of disappointment,” she said.
Jenny said the staff were passionate about helping people, but often that help wasn’t accepted. Personal and family histories often made it hard to engage those in need, and something as simple as a client making contact by phone and taking that first step could be the highlight of the week.
Jenny said there was a community misconception that these were pseudo-government services that threatened to remove children from their homes.
“We work to stop FACS knocking on the door.”
(FACS, or Department of Family and Community Services, is the new DOCS. “New government, new acronym,” Jenny said.)
“We’re a non-government, not-for-profit group where every program is based on a volunteer criterion. There’s no mandated response. If people don’t want to access a service, they’re not compelled to.”
So who is the dynamo behind all this social development?
Jenny admits to occasionally being called “Jenny Melmouth” or “Sergeant”, but her dexterity in juggling mountains of paperwork in conjunction with often heart-wrenching community problems indicates she’s not your average nine-to-five worker.
She’s paid to work a 35-hour week but actually works 40 to 52 hours a week, and that’s only when she’s counting.
She grew up in the town of Stroud, NSW, where both her parents’ families had strong roots.
She said she was without a vocation until she joined the Australian Army in her early 20s and loved it. She was with the army for 12 years, rising to the rank of sergeant (accounting for at least one of her nicknames).
She spent some years in bomb disposal before working for two years at the Kapooka Battalion in Wagga Wagga in first recruit training, “turning civilians into soldiers”.
She was also involved in army recruitment, possibly honing her skills of persuasion, and in supply and administration, calling on mass organisation skills to support field force operations. Along the way, she was required to keep up her front-line skills as well, and the extensive travel meant she got to see a lot of Australia.
“There was never a dull moment,” Jenny said.
On becoming disenchanted with the politics starting to infiltrate the army, she joined the Queensland Police Force where she spent six years on general duties (“pounding the street”) and eventually in plain clothes in the Juvenile Aid Bureau. She said both roles were educational on community issues.
“Obviously structure and organisation seem to be my bit,” Jenny said.
She then had a lifestyle change and went travelling around Australia with partner Chris, ending up in Tenterfield in 2006.
“We were passing through, pulled up, thought it was quite lovely, and stayed,” she said.
Jenny said the friendliness of the people was a factor, and in particularly Biddy Stuart who was volunteering at the Visitor Information Centre and, coincidentally, was also a long-standing member of the Social Development Committee.
Jenny loved watching the change in seasons after being based in Queensland, while still being close to family and friends in Brisbane (although she spent her first Boxing Day in bed because she found it too cold to get out).
The couple now live on 40 acres outside town where they run dorper sheep. Chris works interstate with his horses but has plans to establish a horse training centre in Tenterfield.
Jenny started working for the committee in 2007 in a relief position, before becoming the service co-ordinator as well as managing human resources. She sees her future in Tenterfield and has no plans to move on from her current role, save for a dream to retire in five or six years’ time and undertake archaeological digs in Jordan.
“I was always interested in archaeology but was no good at science or maths. Now it’s all done with things like GPS (global positioning systems),” Jenny said.
In the meantime she’s around eight months away from completing her Diploma of Management, and will continue working to identify gaps in community services and seeking sources of funding.
She wants to see more outreach services based here, such as Centrelink, the Department of Housing, a social worker and a child protection officer.
Some years ago, for a lark, Jenny visited a fortune teller and was told she would not have children of her own but would somehow be surrounded by children. That predication has come to fruition as Jenny continues to work for Tenterfield’s younger residents.
“I guess I’ve always had a strong sense of social justice,” she said.