Supporting people throughout their journey in life

Stella Avramopoulos talks to Neos Kosmos about her experience at the helm of one of Australia's oldest community organisations, shares her insights on the social services sector, and states how her professional development was affected by two factors: Black Saturday and her Greek background

She describes herself as “a Greek chick from Reservoir”, carrying the title like a badge of honour, but Stella Avramopoulos is much more than that. In her capacity as CEO of Kildonan Uniting Care, one of Australia’s oldest organisations supporting underprivileged individuals, families and communities throughout Victoria, she has emerged as one of the most respectable people in the social services field, having managed to bring the organisation – which dates back to 1881 – into the present. As the world of social impact is undergoing a transformation, through new initiatives to meet the demands of the modern era, Stella Avramopoulos shares her insights and describes how her perception of social engagement developed from her early experience as a corrections officer, and the influence of her Greek background.

What is the main objective of Kildonan Uniting Care?
Kildonan’s objective is to target the issues that lead to personal or financial hardship and family breakdown, and to support individuals and families to tackle these issues upfront, before the problems take hold or worsen. We have always been about walking alongside people and supporting them throughout their journey, rather than throwing handouts at people.

How has the organisation transformed through time?
We have undergone many significant changes in our 135 year history from the deinstitutionalisation of children’s homes to more recently, creating unique programs such as the Koori Energy Efficiency Project and CareRing. Kildonan has been game-changing for the sector and we have been proudly cutting edge – the first to trial new and different ways of doing things, such as working with corporates. We’ve always changed the way we did things, and evolved, as we noticed changes emerging in our casework. An example of this is developing Men’s Behaviour Change Programs specifically for South Asian and Arabic-speaking men after we realised there were high rates of family violence in these communities but our mainstream programs didn’t reflect the cultural beliefs and nuances associated with these men.

We are now on the verge of merging with the Uniting Church’s 21 other agencies throughout Victoria and Tasmania and will be known as Uniting, so in a few months’ time, the name `Kildonan’ will no longer exist.

To survive, you need agility and innovation and have resilient, creative, flexible people who are open to change.

How did you get involved with the organisation in the first place?
When I saw a team leader role advertised at Kildonan, the job description read like my nirvana. It had youth, family, and community elements all rolled into one, and this really appealed to me as I’d learnt that you can never look at a person’s issues in isolation. More often than not, the presenting problem is the tip of the iceberg and there are usually so many other factors at play.

I spent eight years working my way through various roles at Kildonan, eventually landing the role as CEO. I was only four months into my CEO role when the 2009 bushfires hit. I had to take Kildonan down a path it had never been before, that is, providing emergency relief on a large scale. That was a real turning point for both myself and Kildonan’s staff. Despite never having operated in disaster relief, Kildonan was at the forefront of that relief effort, which impacted many of the areas in which they operated.

I was blessed with some amazing role models during my time at Kildonan. My first boss, Chris Callanan, was an amazing mentor and taught me to stay calm. Long serving board chair Kate Long always backed me, and long-time Kildonan treasurer, Neville John also really helped me learn how to deal with a range of stakeholders who weren’t used to a CEO who was a young, Greek chick from Reservoir doing things differently!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Initially my main goal was to a establish Kildonan both financially and reputation-wise, and my greatest achievement is that we did that, and as a result, Kildonan grew for the right reasons in areas that we wanted it to, that were previously difficult.

What was the greatest challenge that you’ve had to face?
The greatest challenge has been how to bring together community, corporates, and government around a shared purpose to deliver social services in a new way.

How would you describe the current philanthropy and social engagement ecosystem?
For the social engagement ecosystem to be effective in delivering impact for the community, it needs to incorporate government, the social sector, and not-for-profit organisations, corporates, and philanthropists. We are always much more effective when we collaborate.

How important is the role of philanthropy in this?
Philanthropy has always been an important part of investing in innovation at Kildonan and we’ve had lots of success partnering with philanthropists to pursue cutting edge and new approaches that governments and the sector are yet to think of.

How do you see the emergence of social enterprises?
Social enterprises are emerging as a new way of achieving social impact using innovative, agile responses by entrepreneurs. They too need to be supported and embraced by the traditional ecosystem. They are growing in numbers which is pleasing to see.

Social enterprise development is probably the fastest service platform in the world. It’s a very exciting thing to be emerging. It’s going to, at some level, be a disruptor for mainstream traditional services who don’t want to change, and it’s going to really provide opportunities for both the community sector and corporates to actually come together, collaborate and develop some really innovative solutions to what are some wicked community problems.

How did you decide to pursue a career in this field?
My first job was in Community Corrections in Geelong and I always say I started my toughest job first. I literally had a whistle hung around my neck and was sent in to Barwon Prison. At 23 years old it was confronting and stressful. On my first day as I was walking across the yard, someone called my name and I came face to face with a boy from school. As he shared his story I was struck by the similarities in our upbringings, yet a series of unfortunate incidents had led him to the `wrong side of the fence.’ So many of the men I came across told me their lives may have turned out differently if someone had have stepped in and helped them, and their families, when they were younger. It was because of this, and the impact it had on me, that youth and early intervention became my focus, and still are today.

How has your Greek background influenced your professional conduct and development?
I had an amazing and privileged experience of living with both my parents and grandparents in the one household, so I got to know about my cultural heritage and my family history from my grandparents in particular. My dad was a tailor and my mum a seamstress and they ran a men’s clothing business and worked incredible hours – for 30 years – which gave me a strong work ethic, but they were also very generous and there was a real spirit of welcoming and helping others in our home. I think this was the greatest influence on me going into the not-for-profit sector, rather than joining dad’s business.

Mum and dad were also very involved in various Greek committees – the soccer club, the village club, AHEPA – and community life. Saturday night was going to dances, Sunday was going to church and then visiting all the relatives. This really developed my emotional intelligence and social etiquette which helped my transition into the not-for-profit sector.

My Year 11/12 Greek teacher inspired me to go to university and develop a range of skill sets, such as politics, Classics, and literature, and for that, I will be forever grateful. To this day I run a leadership lecture which focuses on lessons we can learn from the Ancient Greeks.