October 2016

A safe haven for women and children: 20 years on

“It’s so aptly named The Good Samaritan Inn,” says Mary O’Donohue, “because it is reaching out to people in their most vulnerable moments, and caring for them and making sure they’re well cared for when you send them lovingly on their way again.”

BY Debra Vermeer

As a retired school principal, Mary O’Donohue says her seven years on the Board of the Good Samaritan Inn in Melbourne have been a learning curve, but she is sustained in the role by her personal encounters with the women and children who find a safe haven at The Inn when they are at their lowest and most vulnerable point.

The Good Samaritan Inn is a ministry of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

It provides short-term emergency accommodation for single women and women with children escaping family violence and homelessness, and was begun by Sisters Anne Dixon and Helen Mills when they opened their home to the homeless in 1996.

“Every time you visit you don’t go away untouched by the very great need for women who are desperate,” Mary says.

“It’s their first port of call usually. They are referred to The Inn through an agency, having often been involved in some kind of family violence situation, and the trauma they are experiencing is quite evident.

“But when they get to The Inn, there’s a calmness there. The wonderful workers and volunteers always treat people with great gentleness. There is a great sense of care there.

“Once when I was walking up the stairs at The Inn, I met a woman coming down and I asked her how she had slept. She replied that she had slept well because she felt so safe. ‘It’s the first time I’ve felt safe in ages,’ she said.”

Mary was approached to be on the Board for The Good Samaritan Inn after retiring as Principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School, Preston in 2013.

She started teaching in Melbourne in 1970, having grown up in Colac, Victoria, in a loving and faith-filled family.

“I saw my parents reach out to people in need all through my childhood,” she says. “That was a key component of our upbringing, the witness they gave. All my brothers and sisters learnt that from my Mum and Dad.

“They gave us the strong message that part of our mission in life is to reach out to others less fortunate.”

Mary came to know of the work of The Inn during her time as Principal of Sacred Heart, Preston and thought she might like to volunteer there when she retired.

“You know,” she laughs, “I had in mind baking some cakes for them or something like that.”

But Sister Michelle Reid, who was working at The Inn had different ideas, and over a couple of coffee meetings, suggested that Mary’s skills and experience would be valuable as Chair of the Board.

“I’d never been on a Board like that before,” Mary says. “So there I was, a baby Board member and a baby Chair – not an ideal situation in retrospect, but that’s how it unfolded.”

Mary says she has seen quite a few changes at The Inn over the years she has been involved, mainly because of the tragically growing demand for its services.

“Nothing stays the same at The Inn because the need continues to grow,” she says. “Many of the people who come to The Inn have come because of family violence and sadly, that continues to grow in our society.”

One of the things that has always stood out for Mary is the way that women and children are treated at The Inn.

“They are always known as guests, not clients,” she says. “And that has always made a big impression on me.

“And you can see this care and respect expressed in so many ways. For instance, if you go into the kitchen, a freshly home-baked cake might be there. It might be from a local parishioner or one of the volunteers. They just want to provide something home-made for the women and children.

“That’s what sets it apart – the effort that people go to make it feel like a home.”

Accommodation at The Inn includes three family rooms and two single rooms, so that at any one time, there might be four or five women and seven or eight children staying there.

“It’s only a small place, but I’m sure there are a lot of women and children in the community who would remember it fondly because of the care they received there,” says Mary.

Once they leave The Inn, typically after three to five days, their external caseworker works with them to find safe ongoing accommodation and other support.

“At the moment we’re only open Monday to Friday,” Mary says. “But we want to change that. We’re working very hard to have The Inn open seven days a week.

“So one of our big goals as a Board is to try and get some government funding to allow us to open seven days a week.”

The Inn has also developed a violence prevention project, working with local schools to promote respectful relationships.

Mary says the 20th anniversary of The Inn is a real feat, given the nature of the work.

“When you think back to how Anne and Helen first started this work in a little house in Northcote, and then it moved to an old convent, it really started with a small committee of friends and has now grown to become a fully incorporated Board. It’s been quite a story,” she says.

“And of course, this work, caring for desperate women, was the first work of the Good Samaritan Sisters when they were established by Archbishop Polding and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so special to the Sisters, because it’s going back to their roots. I can understand why it’s so precious to them.”

Mary says the Good Samaritan Benedictine tradition underlies everything that happens at The Inn.

“At each meeting, we reflect on some aspect of the Benedictine tradition or the Good Samaritan story,” she says.

“It’s so aptly named The Good Samaritan Inn, because it is reaching out to people in their most vulnerable moments, and caring for them and making sure they’re well cared for when you send them lovingly on their way again.”

As a Director of the Board, Mary says she is just “a tiny little cog in a big wheel” at The Inn.

“It’s our wonderful workers and our big band of volunteers who are the real stars,” she says.

“At some stages we’ve had up to 70 volunteers helping out. It’s extraordinary. We have people volunteer to help with the garden, we have a volunteer sleepover person and cook every night who work with the smaller group of skilled and dedicated employees.

“You can’t underestimate the support of the whole community and the impact that has on the place. It has retained a real community spirit.”

Mary says that when she finished as Chair of the Board, after five years, and with a range of other volunteer commitments to keep her busy, she had thought she might relinquish her role as a Board member, but when the time came she changed her mind.

“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t think I can walk away from this’,” she says.

“And that’s because I believe very strongly in the work that it does. So although I’ve felt quite inadequate to the task at times, and it’s been a new sector for me to work in, I feel it’s been a huge learning experience for me.

“But it’s been a blessing too. The people I’ve been associated with through the Board have been really inspirational people and so too have the women and children who’ve been our guests at The Inn, and there’s always more to be done.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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