Interview conducted by Cormac Sheehan // Purpose Communications.
Cormac: Are you originally from Melbourne?
Sue: Yeah, my parents are from Edinburgh, immigrated in 1965, I was born a year later in Nov 1966, I’m 54 now.
Cormac: Did you grow up around Seddon?
Sue: No, I’m from Werribee. Did you ever see the show, Upper Middle Class Bogan? I’m like a bogan when I’m in Werribee, but when I’m in Seddon it’s a little bit upper class, so I’ve to put on me airs and graces! I get home, relax, have a smoke at the door, can be myself.
Cormac: You’ve been working with WCIG [Westgate Community Initiatives Group] since 2007, first with Cleanable and now with LoveLuvo. How did you first get involved in the project?
Sue: Yeah, I was a cleaner, in 2007 I was hired. I came here and Peter was the manager, not the Peter we have now, a different Peter. I went out the back for a smoke and he said “everyone that’s here, sign the tax form, you’re all hired” and I went out the back for a smoke with him and he said “someone isn’t turning up at Sunshine” and I said “I’ll do that tonight”. The workers at Werribee had taken me to all the sites in a car, so I had to remember how to get there. I got there an hour early for my shift and Peter said “what are you doing here so early?!”. He wasn’t angry, but. I was so eager that I allowed myself that time in case I got lost.
Then I cleaned for years at Footscray Dental Clinic, it used to be a WW2 repatriation hospital, so there’s a few ghosts there. We were alright working there until we found about the ghosts, it spooked us out a bit! We work in winter at night, and its pitch black there. My first introduction to cleaning was with the office assistant there, he was so particular, so I learned the hard way what to clean – he wanted everything cleaned. So that was a good introduction, you couldn’t cut corners. I did the initial cleaning course which was good, through WCIG, did the cleaning, then they offered us a Retail Course, and I think I did modules 1, 2 and 3.
Cormac: So how’d you start with LoveLuvo?
Sue: I did the retail course and then they started putting me in the shop. Before, we had a huge manufacturing business, we were making things and they had a lot of disability workers out the back here. That all folded because people weren’t buying products and we were putting a lot of money into peoples’ wages, so it all closed down.
We just get products that people want now, from around Melbourne or Victoria, and that’s working a lot better but unfortunately they had to sack a lot of people. Luckily I kept my job, because at that time they’d sent me to CCU, which was a mental health unit, it’s got about 20 units, and we were cleaning those. I was doing that for a couple of years, which was good because I was working in Werribee as well as living there. We lost the contract somehow, not through out fault, but because The Mercy wouldn’t pay us. They put some new cleaners in there who’d do it for next to nothing, so I was very disappointed with that.
So one day they rang up and said, would you like to work in the shop? I had to think about it. So I thought about it for an hour and came to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to do what you’re uncomfortable with, take on a challenge. So I said yeah, I’ll do it. I’ve never regretted it.
Cormac: And that’s since 10 years ago?
Sue: Yeah, cleaning for about five years, and now in the shop for 10 years.
Cormac: And did you have other jobs before starting with Cleanable?
Sue: I did, but they weren’t successful. This is the longest long term job I’ve had.
Cormac: What’s the difference?
Sue: I think not understanding my mental illness.
Cormac: Can I ask what mental illness you’re diagnosed with?
Sue: Paranoid schizophrenic.
Cormac: So you’d get a job, find it hard to cope, and it wouldn’t work out?
Sue: Well, people who aren’t used to working with mentally ill people take it the wrong way. Working in an office, for example, I didn’t like – I always wanted to go out for a smoke because I get anxious, and they told me off for that and a lot of other things. Then my contract wasn’t renewed. A few things like that have happened, but then this is the longest long term job I’ve ever had – way longest. So I’m very proud of myself, I’ve had one six week holiday, paid holiday for long service leave when I’d been working there 10 years. So apparently in another two or three years I can have another one. But I don’t like being away from work too long, I get bored.
Cormac: Tell me about who Sue was before starting with WCIG.
Sue: About 23, 25 I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I’d always had a feeling I was a bit different, but it manifested itself with a manic episode where I was sweating and anxious, and I didn’t realise I was sick. They took me into hospital and I spent two weeks or a month there just getting on the medication, it settled me right down. Then they released me, I wasn’t in long. Subsequently I was back another couple of times. Twice in the back of a divvy! Just sitting there, looking out the window.
Cormac: So, in terms of the skills and abilities that you have now today, how does that compare to before you started?
Sue: I needed at least 5 to 10 years to just be myself. I was on disability. It’s all worked out the way it should’ve, I think, looking back. I wouldn’t have been ready to work to start with, I had to settle into my illness. I was doing craft and doing things like that, painting and stuff, it was more of a rehabilitation. But when I presented myself I felt – right, I’m ready, I’m going to see if I can do cleaning. Once I got that job at Fairfield which the Doggies supporter man gave me, Rob I think his name was, I started there. Maybe I was a late bloomer, I didn’t start here until I was 40 and now I’m 54, I just needed that maturity, I don’t think I would’ve coped.
Cormac: Do you have favourite colleagues or customers and what is it that’s so great about them?
Sue: I love working with Jess, she’s the best Manageress we’ve had, she has a great sense of humour, she’s really good with us, the three disability workers, because we’re all different.
Cormac: And customers?
Sue: Do you know, in all my years here, I’ve never had one angry customer. Not one. People love the shopping experience here. “Don’t go into retail” people used to tell me, “you’ll get angry customers”, but I’ve never had one here. Not one, that’s the honest truth.
Cormac: What do you like most about the shop?
Sue: I like that it’s a social enterprise which has employees with disabilities. Also the products are sustainable and very current to what’s happening in the world, we’re reusing plastics, we’ve got all these destressing products – I’d call it a Destress / Sustainable Shop. The Epsom salts lately are flying out the door, people realise that the magnesium for the body and the muscles is the best thing, and we’re putting essential oils in as well, so you’re going to get rid of all the muscle aches from a walk or a day’s work, and also smell nice from the essential oil. As long as you spend five minutes letting it dissolve, otherwise you get a crunchy bath!
Cormac: Do you see yourself working with the LoveLuvo and WCIG team into the future?
Sue: All of us feel the same way – I’ve worked with all the girls and we all say I love it here, I want to stay here. Some social enterprises, you’re only allowed work for a certain amount of time, but this has broken all the rules and we’ve worked here, well me 14 years.
Cormac: If you met someone now who was like you were when you were 23, and they were feeling very hopeless about the future…
Sue: I’d say there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Just stick with what you’re good at, what you love.
Cormac: What would you say to your old self, from back then?
Sue: I’d say you’ll go down a path, you’ll meet a fella that you love, he’s a good bloke. You’ll get a good job and you’ll have a roof over your head, you’ll live by yourself, so just keep going. I can’t ask for more. Anything else is just icing on the cake.
Cormac: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up our chat?
Sue: Well, I just think that WCIG with our CEO Ron, started a great company. It’s truly the best place I’ve ever worked. If it sets an example, that Ron started 15 years ago, it’s a good example and I think that because we’ve got such a good work ethic that we’ve remained where others have failed, other social enterprises. Since 2007. It’s to his credit, Ron, apart from being the same, it was a Uniting Church or Presbyterian board that started it, and I’m actually a Presbyterian myself, church background. Apart from that, I think they’ve hired people with the right vision and the right set of rules, and that’s really helped make it a success.
If you’d like to find out more about the work we do and who it can benefit, click here to find out about Westgate Community Initiatives Group or click here to find out about LoveLuvo.