By Greg Allen-Pretty
We often don’t realise how much we achieved or the level of impact we have had on people’s lives until we walk away from something and look back.
Joh Lyons has just finished six years at the helm of The VRI, a run-down disused hall in Traralgon that was fixed up and turned into a life-changer for many people. What was once an almost derelict building was transformed into a vibrant community-building hub.
You have no doubt heard the old proverb that says if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for his lifetime.
The VRI isn’t a place to go for hand-outs. It’s a place for people to learn and try new things so that they can create their own destinies.
The Victorian Railway Institute is a social and support organisation for railway workers. Their hall alongside the Traralgon station was regularly used in the past, but had been sitting idle for some time.
Joh was working for Traralgon Neighbourhood Learning House when she saw an opportunity to use the building for change, and was supported by Jenny Poon who has been a long-term mentor.
With the help of Rosalea Monacella and Craig Douglas at ReActivate Latrobe, a community consultation project was launched to determine what the community, including many young people, felt would be the best use of the facility.
A massive crowfunding campaign got them the building and some money for some initial badly needed repairs.
“I was heartened by the number of small donations that people had made,” Joh said.
“But with time running out and less than half of the required money raised I was in that phase of letting go, thinking this isn’t going to happen.
“Then a woman contacted me and said she wanted to make up the difference!
“That large contribution of around $30,000 that came from one woman who wanted to be anonymous really blew me away.
“That was really a big shift for me because when someone believes in a project like that, just someone from the community and not particularly rich, it was very motivating. I felt very supported by that.”
Since occupying the space in 2014, improvements have continually been made to the building and its grounds, thanks to the initial crowdfunding, then grants from all levels of government, the private sector, health organisations and Traralgon Neighbourhood Learning House itself. Added to that is income from activities in the hall.
One of the early programs that continues to be successful is the community garden.
“What it was about for me was all the opportunities that people had,” said Joh, “like the guys who built the courtyard and deck area.”
“We had a builder named Wayne who worked with unemployed people, and most of them are now working.
“They were proud of their work and enjoyed showing it to others. And even now, some still drop in and say to participants: we built that deck!
“Those opportunites that you give people to build something, when they actually do something good themselves, is better than just telling someone they’re good.
“People actually need opportunities to show what they can do.
“It’s the same with things like our sunflower project, and all the artists who have come in over the time with their exhibitions and events.
“They were young emerging artists who weren’t going to get a look-in at any gallery. Some of them unemployed.
“So for them to actually put their art on the wall and have people say what they thought of it, provided real learning experiences for them. More powerful than education.”
The VRI hall has changed many people’s lives over the years.
16 people have been employed at The VRI at different times who, along with many others, delivered programs or workshops. And The VRI has supported more than 2500 ‘Work for the Dole’ placements, helping many to find or make a job.
Hall upgrades made it possible to hold events.
“We had the first Binary Shift conference there, which has now gone on to GippsTech with big events in different towns.
“Matilda Lappin did macrame classes at The VRI which led to her opening The Bee and the Spider in Morwell.
“Photographer PollyannaR had a number of leadership opportunities at The VRI… so it has opened doors for many people in the community.
In fact, more than 70 organisations, community groups, individuals and businesses have used the space to connect with the community through events, activities and classes.
Joh said much was achieved thanks to the enormous support of many local businesses. The View From Here provided branding pro bono and worked with them on many projects, and the Shaky Spear Milk Bar gave jobs to participants. They are just two of many supportive businesses, including those that gave in-kind donations during building and upgrade projects.
Under Joh’s leadership, The VRI became more than just a hall. It became a community of people who looked out for each other.
“We had a health and safety audit one day and the auditor said everything isn’t quite perfect, but you have something that money can’t buy.
“It’s the way everybody cares about the space and each other.
“The auditor had conversations with everybody and he said: they were trying to be careful not to say the wrong thing because they clearly love you and this space, and they didn’t want to say anything that would put it in jeopardy. That normally doesn’t happen.
“The auditor said: other people who are on employment programs to receive support money are usually resentful and critical of the organisation they’re working for. But here it’s a whole different attitude. That’s a protective factor. It’s why you don’t have accidents. “
Activities at The VRI have slowed at the moment due to Covid-19 restrictions. However its future is solid thanks to the strong foundations built by Joh and those around her over the last six years.
The garden will go on and The VRI will continue to provide opportunities for people to start something new which, for many, has led to new and successful commercial ventures.
The VRI continues to be managed by the energetic and community-minded team at Traralgon Neighbourhood Learning House.