Big Group Hug is a remarkable organisation serving local communities to tackle child poverty. They do this by collecting and distributing essential items to vulnerable children and their families who are living in crisis. They mobilise community support via a team of volunteers and donations of new and pre-loved items to respond to the immediate needs of young people.
Reducing waste is another of Big Group Hug’s great motivations, and since 2014 they have provided more than 600,000 donations of preloved items to vulnerable families.
Late in 2021 Big Group Hug was awarded a Community Grant of $48,587 from Freemasons Foundation Victoria, to purchase a van to support BGH’s delivery of important items to needy families and children in Melbourne. It was the second van in the BGH fleet. In mid-2022, once it was purchased, wrapped and repurposed to look the part and fit the job, members of the FFV team were delighted to visit BGH headquarters to see it for themselves and learn first-hand about the organisation’s work.
We recently caught up again with CEO Bernadene Voss to hear how the van supports this service, a year on.
BGH was fortunate to have reasonably good retention of their volunteers through the pandemic. When we visited, there were 20-30 volunteers in the warehouse and Bernadene recalled how appreciative the volunteers were of the interest in their work.
“Volunteers are pretty much the backbone of what we do, and for them to be involved in those sorts of discussions is quite important. Often, they don't understand grants. And actually, people don't understand why charities even need money. They don’t understand there are really a lot of costs involved. So, that was also a really good outcome.
“The van itself has been running since March 2022. We recruited four additional volunteer drivers and we have a whole schedule of volunteer drivers – they are incredible.”
Working in pairs, the drivers pick up items that aren’t able to be delivered to BGH’s warehouse. They also deliver items. Bernadene says there’s lots lately being delivered to hospitals.
“Sometimes, when children are born, mothers are unprepared. Things like prams, a bassinet, a car seat, so they can come home from the hospital safely. Sometimes its formula, or clothing, nappies, all that sort of stuff. Every day is totally busy.”
The second van travels around 560 kms per month, and between March and November 2022 has fulfilled 465 family requests, representing 1,348 children helped. In this time it has also diverted 15.2 tonnes of useful items from landfill.
The grant application noted a need for a program specifically to provide essential items to teenagers experiencing homelessness or disadvantage via a mobile van that moved from place to place, as this was an area with a service gap. BGH partners with Whittlesea Connections to this end, sometimes attending their Friday night food program, which is frequented by a lot of teens. They came up against some challenges with reaching this cohort – some of the younger volunteers that were important to the success of the program were disrupted by COVID and not particularly reliable. The organisation also realised that being unskilled with working with at risk youth was risky in itself, as there was potential for violent behaviour and frequent mental health issues. By providing items to Whittlesea Connections instead, whose staff have the required skills and support networks, they were able to make more of an impact.
“So it's evolved a little bit it – it hasn't been the wardrobe in the back of a van that we originally applied for, but the outcome has been very similar - we just haven't put our people at risk. Whittlesea Connections also do whatever they can to get them housing.”
“The economic conditions at the moment are tough - rising, interest rates, rent holidays that business got ceasing etc. Yes, people are getting jobs, but a lot of them are not high paid. There are many reasons for people needing our help. Families and mothers fleeing domestic violence is a huge area that we help with – things like toiletries, toothpaste, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, essentials they just don’t have.”
Bernadene said the new van has been instrumental in ensuring items are transported to the Airport West site, meaning more children are supported and have access to essential items.
“The new van that Freemasons provided has been an incredible catalyst to help us really take the next step and be able to do more. You know, we could do with a couple more vans, quite frankly. But it's really been an incredible help.”
“I can't thank Freemasons Foundation enough for their incredible contribution to Big Group Hug. We're very grassroots - something like that may not have a huge impact for other organisations, but it's been quite exponential for us.”