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Laurie Maher reckons he’s no saint. Laurie Maher reckons he’s no saint.
03 July 2018 Posted by 

Coast Shelter CEO Laurie calls it a day

TERRY COLLINS
LAURIE Maher reckons he’s no saint, but there are thousands – if not millions - of Central Coast residents who would probably disagree.


After a lifetime spent working in the welfare field, Mr Maher will retire next month as CEO of Coast Shelter, after more than 26 years at the helm of an organisation dedicated to helping coast residents in distress.
 
It’s probably fair to say that without Laurie Maher, Coast Shelter would not exist at all.
 
It all began in 1991, when Mr Maher heard that the family refuge, run at that time by Gosford Community and Information Services and funded largely by the Kibble Park Tea Rooms, run by Mr Maher’s wife Helen, was in danger of closing.
 
“By late that year, it got to the point where the refuge simply couldn’t continue,” he said.
 
“They were doing a tremendous job in very difficult circumstances and I realised this was a service the community couldn’t afford to lose.”
 
Mr Maher, who had just left a government job after years as working as a teacher, a principal and in the juvenile justice system, sprang into action.
 
“I approached Centre Care to see if they would auspice the refuge until I could form a committee to take over its management and in January, 1992, that’s just what happened,” he said.
 
After successfully petitioning state and federal governments for funding, the committee, spearheaded by Mr Maher, set up a refuge in the old Catholic school convent, which stood where the commuter carpark is now on the hospital side of Gosford station, and later a men’s refuge in Holden Street.
 
After renting a variety of properties, the committee purchased accommodation at West Gosford for a women’s refuge and adjoining children’s play area.
 
Since then, the operation has mushroomed.
 
“Over the years, we were approached by the government to take on various other refuges, eventually being made responsible for all refuges on the coast,” Mr Maher said.
 
“Right now we have three refuges for women and children, five for youth and one for men, as well as a separate program for women and children escaping domestic violence.
 
“It became apparent that in order for the operation to be sustainable it had to be founded on solid business principles – and that’s what we have today, a successful business.”
 
In addition to the crisis housing, Coast Shelter also provides “exit housing’, where individuals and families can be housed for up to 12 months as they put their lives back together.
 
During this time, in collaboration with a variety of service providers and government agencies, clients are offered support, retraining and assistance in job seeking and the search for permanent housing.
 
“But we still weren’t meeting the demand for help and there was the need for a permanent community centre where people under stress could simply have a meal or a warm shower,” Mr Maher said.
 
Four years ago, the then Gosford Council bought a block of land in Mann St, which is now home to a modern community centre which serves around 50,000 meals a year to those in need.
 
With no government funding for the kitchen and dining service, which occupies the entire downstairs of the Mann St premises, it is kept alive through food donations and the tireless efforts of hundreds of volunteers.
 
“More and more people are facing the dilemma of whether to pay for a roof over their heads or food for the table – many simply can’t afford both,” Mr Maher said.
 
“We help out with food parcels, no interest loans, energy, pharmacist and podiatry bills – whatever we can do.”
 
Coast Shelter has also recently acquired a van which delivers donated household goods to people who can’t afford to buy their own.
 
“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of the extremely generous businesses, clubs and individuals on the coast,” Mr Maher said.
 
“We receive state government funding which provides around 60 beds every night, but thanks to the generosity of the community we actually provide around 200.
 
“And still we aren’t meeting the demand. What is desperately needed is more housing. Even when people leave our exit housing, two out of every five can’t find permanent accommodation with less than 1 per cent vacancy rate on rentals in the area.”
 
The decision to stand down did not come easily for Mr Maher.
 
“We have launched the Love Bites program in secondary schools, teaching kids respect and coping strategies,” he said.
 
“Just this month we launched a free phone app for the program with all sorts of support information and I would like to see it expand into primary schools eventually.
 
“I’d also like to see an expansion of the community centre.”
 
But with his 80t birthday coming up this year, Mr Maher reluctantly decided it was time to step down, and will finish up in the job mid-year.
 
“It will be very difficult to leave,” he said. “I have worked in welfare my whole life – working for social inclusion. I just feel this is what we need to be doing to look after our community.”
 
A man of strong Christian principles, Mr Maher studied for the priesthood as a young man until, as he says, “they got sick of me”.
 
But it is that strong faith which has sustained him through years of battling for funds to help the neediest in our society.
 
“I feel very grateful that I have had the opportunity to help meet the needs of increasing numbers of people over the years,” he said.
 
A former councillor on (then) Gosford Council for eight years including four stints as mayor, Mr Maher and his wife Helen have six children and 13 grandchildren, many of whom have also entered areas of welfare, from policing to hospital work to various help organisations.
 
Mr Maher will continue in his role until July 27, when he will officially hand over the reins to new CEO Rachel Willis, who starts at the shelter on June 25 to learn the ropes.
 
Ms Willis has worked in the social justice environment for many years.
 
Coast Shelter will hold an Open Day at its community Shelter on Sunday, July 15, to celebrate Mr Maher’s retirement and Ms Willis’s appointment from 11am.
 
All community members are invited.

 



editor

Michael Walls
Publisher
P: 0407 783 413
E: Michael@accessnews.com.au

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