When Kerry Thomas steps down from her role as CEO at Gateway Family Services on 8 February 2019, it will mark the end of more than twenty years’ service.
Ms Thomas has seen (and directed) the transformation of Blue Mountains Family Support to Gateway Family Services, from a local church-based organisation to a respected Non-Government Organisation (NGO).
Ms Thomas’ successor, Greg Lazarus, started work on 15 January. Ms Thomas will hand over the role in the meantime.
Starting her career as a school teacher, she found herself acquainted with disadvantage, working in schools in Western Sydney with students from refugee backgrounds.
When Ms Thomas started the role, the organisation employed one full time position. It now has “just over twenty staff”.
One of the major points of transformation was the move towards a strengths-based practice, which works with clients’ existing strengths as part of ongoing work.
This approach, Ms Thomas said, was one that was Christlike. While moving to towards strengths-based practice marked a shift in the organisation’s approach, it is in keeping with its original vision of “being the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Under Ms Thomas’ leadership, Gateway Family Services has sought to hire professionals with the skills that a modern NGO needs.
“We really strive to have the best people we can afford,” Ms Thomas said.
Gateway’s name change took effect in 2014. It reflects the fact that Gateway now serves a greater area. Originally focused on its local surroundings in East Blaxland, Gateway now provides family services in the Penrith and Blue Mountains local government areas. As well as the original location at 70 Old Bathurst Road in Blaxland, the organisation now has a second office in Katoomba.
Many of the services that Gateway have developed have been taken up and used by other organisations. These include It Takes A Village, a training program for early childhood educators that helps them recognise when children are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As it has grown into a respected NGO in its own right, Gateway is busy. When Insights spoke with Ms Thomas in mid-December, Christmas hampers had just gone out. Nearly 90 volunteers were involved in the packing, preparation, and delivery of the hampers, which include Christmas meals and presents. In 2018, Gateway sent out hampers to 330 families and individuals.
Over the time that Ms Thomas has been involved with Gateway, she has worked closely with local politicians from the federal and state spheres.
All of the local members that she had dealt with, she said, had been helpful and respected the work that Gateway contributes. She particularly highlighted the efforts of the former Member for Macquarie, Kerry Bartlett, in helping Gateway through difficult times in the late 1990s.
“They understand all the extra [value] that comes from our volunteers.”
At key points of need, Gateway has been there for its local community. Ms Thomas recalled being “tapped on the shoulder” by the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) during the 2013 Blue Mountains Bush Fires to help roll out trauma services to those who had lost their homes.
Gateway benefits from a close relationship with Blaxland Uniting Church, which is right next door to the organisations ‘cottage’ office. The congregation, Ms Thomas said, “have been such steadfast supporters of Gateway.”
“A good proportion of the volunteers are from the congregation.”
Ms Thomas told Insights that her retirement will include membership of another local organisation’s board.
She said she will seek other board roles to impart her knowledge “while it is still current and relevant.”
“There are things I’d like to see move forward.”
Ms Thomas said she has “two beautiful granddaughters” and one more grandchild on the way who she plans on spending time with, as well as some travel around Australia.
For more information on Gateway Family Services, visit their website.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor