The art of caring

Anthony Radford | Bendigo Weekly | 09-Sep-2011

GOLDEN GIRL: Di O’Neil’s staff call her a legend.

Revered by those who worked with her, Di O’Neil changed the very foundation of social work in Australia 

Strength, optimism, positivity: these are words that cannot fail to come up in a conversation with Di O’Neil, even if she is not speaking them herself.
The woman who has just retired from her position as Director of Mission and Training at St Luke’s in Bendigo is, in her unassuming way, an embodiment of those very words.
Her fellow workers also tend to refer to her as “a legend”.
“I expected to come in here and find the walls covered in gold,” said one of Di’s co-workers, on a brief visit to check out where she and three others are to be housed following the director’s retirement.
Di was quick with a response. “I don’t know about the walls, but you may find a bit of gold among the dust.”
That, again, could pretty much sum up her approach to her work: she’s always looking for the gold among the dust.
Call her a people fossicker, it is her “Strengths Approach”, built across four decades of experience, that has earned her the praise and gratitude of social workers in Australia and internationally.
Since she joined St Luke’s in 1987, the organisation has worked towards “altering the way we did our business”. Where a welfare agency used to have an entry point “geared towards deficit”, where the client has to prove what they don’t have, for Di and her co-workers, it gradually became a process of identifying a strength and a solution for problems.
Another Di-ism: “The problem is the problem – the person is not the problem.”
Born in Warragul, east of Melbourne, Di was told by a careers-counsellor towards the end of high school that her questionnaire answers suggested she would make a good social worker.
So she signed up for what was then a diploma course at Melbourne University and proceeded to have a fine time.
“This was the 1960s, a time of questioning,” she says.
“As a community, we believed we had the right to have a voice, and that we could be more assertive, so we learned to argue, respectfully.
“We were going to change the world.”
Nailing the diploma, she then meandered her way through an extra arts degree. In 1968, she joined the Presbyterian Special Services, at a time when the sector was undergoing important changes.
Describing herself as “spiritual rather than bound by faith”, Di has worked within the church-organised welfare sector at a time when community understanding has gradually moved from handing out charity to empowering disadvantage.
When she joined St Luke’s it was as the first agency worker in the area of “prevention of cruelty to children”, a role previously handled by policewomen.
What she saw back then didn’t shock her, it angered her, but she had early in her career come to the realisation that a good social worker, one able to last the distance, is one who keeps sufficient distance too.
“You need to respect the individual,” she says. “You need to join their journey, not make it yours.”
The St Luke’s children’s home closed down, morphing into St Luke’s Family Care, then St Luke’s Anglicare in 1979.
In 1987, a radical re-think of not just the services but also the very guts of their welfare body gave rise to the powerful, positive, pervasive St Luke’s, so much a part of the Bendigo landscape today.
Rather than organising people into programs, St Luke’s turned to the people themselves. Rather than trying to shoe-horn already stressed people into existing programs, Di and her co-workers helped people tap into St Luke’s resources, identifying their needs by listening to them, working out how to build on what they have, not what they don’t have.
That new approach was outlined in a book Di co-wrote in 1996.
Her ability to articulate how things are done – and why they work – has been a big part of the St Luke’s approach itself. She chuckles about her “entertainment value”, her way of finding stories to illustrate her work.
Some of these stories are parables – like the one about the people picnicking by a river who became more and more distressed at seeing babies float by, in increasing numbers, until one of them, exhausted, decides to go up-river and find out how the babies were getting into the river in the first place. (Intervention preferable to rescue, is the message here.)
Others come from her experience, like the woman caught at one of those impossible parenting moments when a screech at an endangered kid is the only option, who was judged by an on-looker as someone who ought not be a mother.
On another occasion, however, that same woman was helped by someone who could see that another pair of arms was all she needed, rather than a censorious comment.
Both stories become part of Di’s store of metaphors.
“We do intervene,” she says, “regardless of whether we run away from a situation or whether we are prepared to accept a knockback.
“You can be scared off by risk and do nothing, or you can take what I call justifiable risks.”
At St Luke’s she was always encouraged to have a go. “Even though we are an agency of help,” she says, “we are also an agency of social change.”
There are those at St Luke’s who don’t quite know how the hole left by Di’s departure will be filled. They are moving not one but four people into the office she has vacated.
Di, at 65, declares herself absolutely ready for this so-called retirement, because it will bring her time to think and write about what she so passionately believes in – without the responsibility that has been present every day for 40 years.
Bendigo, she says, has been a fine place to practise this art of caring for people.
“I don’t know what it is about Bendigo,” she says.
“There is a spirit of great concern and involvement.
“But we still do see a lot of people who don’t fit the pattern, and whose lives are impacted by a whole range of things.
“I’m concerned that there is a greater divide in Australian society now, and there are people conditioned to think that’s what their role is, those who are not part of the society.
“We are always ready to lay blame, to say, they do the work and they will become included.
“But rather than that, we need to open up ways they can be included.” 


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