A ONE-stop shop purpose-built community centre in Taree that will provide better co-ordination of early childhood services for children and families is edging closer to reality.
Rosemary Sinclair AO and Frances Barberie are among the team working towards the establishment of the First Steps Count Child and Family Centre, which would be located within the Manning Gardens Public School precinct.
Over the past five years, planning and community consultation has taken place in order to ensure the centre will give all children the best possible start in life.
"Countless children are presently denied access to needed services because service providers and distance between them makes access for families well nigh impossible," said Mrs Sinclair.
"Unfortunately many families are unfairly labelled non-attenders and services actively denied them. This stigma and resulting lack of service provision affects children's entire lives and costs society in more ways than the obvious monetary realm.
"The centre will also identify and resolve gaps in service delivery by actively working in partnership with families and services.
"We are preparing a model that will alleviate the adverse affects of the disadvantaged situation."
Mrs Sinclair said it is important to have a one-stop shop as often people are unaware of the services available or don't have public transport, or a car, to get them everywhere.
Mrs Barberie went on to explain that people could be disadvantaged in a range of aspects, including geographically, with many services in Port Macquarie, Newcastle and Sydney that require people to travel.
"The idea of this centre is to have all the services available in one spot," said Rosemary.
"It is the treatment around the child philosophy. We are trying to give access to what's needed all in one day and all the specialists will come to us."
The Myall Avenue location was chosen as it was identified as a place surrounded by a high proportion of children living in disadvantaged situations.
The biggest "sticking point" at this stage is getting the capital funding to construct the building (which is based on the Living Building Challenge design standard and aimed at being environmentally friendly and fully sustainable).
The project cost is estimated at $4 million and already First Steps Count has secured significant private funding and in-kind support, including major contributions from Architects Without Frontiers (in one of the first times they have supported an Australian project) and Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation which has seen a master plan and building plan drawn up and the development application lodged with Greater Taree City Council.
Council has "been very supportive" and provided land for the construction of the First Steps Count facility, plus there has been business and community contributions, both financial and in kind, which have also been significant (this includes $30,000 raised by the community through small events).
A fundraiser movie premiere is being held at Fays Twin Cinema this Thursday night (see story page 2).
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And while Mrs Sinclair said our government representatives, member for Lyne David Gillespie and member for Myall Lakes Stephen Bromhead, are both lobbying "very heavily" in support of the project, this has so far been to no avail.
She explained that there is no government fund available for capital works of this type.
Another exciting aspect of the building is that it will be environmentally friendly and sustainable
"The funds we need are a one-off for the sustainable service provision and building," said Mrs Sinclair.
"The architects have come up with a fantastic concept, basing the whole design on the Living Building Challenge. There has been significant input into design and landscaping.
"It will be a cost effective building once it is up."
The majority of the building materials will be sourced from the local area.
"We're envisaging a warm and inviting and an environmentally friendly sustainable centre," she said.
"People can walk in and it will be like a home environment. Comfortable, non-threatening, not evident of welfare."
This building and site will be an exemplar project locally, nationally and internationally.
Even before the centre is up and running, First Steps Count has also announced a formal partnership with the University of Wollongong, one of the leaders in early childhood education, for research and participation in the UOW Early Start Engagement Centre network focusing on teaching and community engagement.
"They are keen to conduct research."
First Steps Count sees the facility as a way to bring the community together.
"People see this as a beautiful, ideal place to be," said Mrs Sinclair.
"There are beaches, the seaside, rainforests but in between there is a lot of disadvantage and social issues."