Co-design Counts

Community stories: 2 March 2023

First Steps Count (FSC) Child and Community Centre is a community hub for children (aged 0-12) and their families in Taree, in the NSW Mid North Coast. The journey to bring this space to the community began 12 years ago, and excitingly, the centre recently completed Stage One of construction and is now open to the public.

Taree has a higher than average share of disadvantage, and a fragmented service system. The Centre is located between two social housing estates, and aims to provide a safe and welcoming space for children and families to gather and access more structured supports and programs through a warm and welcoming referral process. Co-design in the planning stages is a key feature of First Steps Count’s way of operating, as they strive to be inclusive of families who would benefit most from the services and supports offered at the Centre.

To help them achieve this, First Steps Count received a $25,000 grant, supported by Paul Ramsay Foundation via our Investing in Not-for-Profit Capacity in Regional NSW program, to engage the community with the design and development of the operational plan for the centre.

The funding enabled the organisation to employ a part-time Co-Design Coordinator to support the work already initiated and maintain momentum established with already engaged families, as well as identify and overcome barriers that are preventing the least engaged families from participating in co-design work.

The coordinator recruited 10 local parents to form a Community Partnerships group and consulted them through six group meetings. Recognising the importance of establishing a culture of volunteer retention, First Steps Count made sure co-design participants were appropriately recognised for their contribution and time. This was achieved with catering/refreshments and thank you gifts, which were included in the project budget “to ensure a robust community engagement project.”

The Coordinator also created numerous opportunities to get out and about in Taree and speak with parents and carers, to create the right conditions for the genuine and safe involvement of children and families with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

For example, they took a coffee truck to nearby local neighbourhoods and provided free coffee in exchange for advice and recommendations from the parents and carers that would potentially be using the Centre. This consultation focused particularly on how to ensure the Centre is safe, welcoming and that services will be appropriate. They also offered after school ice-creams in exchange for ideas from children and young people, specifically asking them to identify suitable names for the rooms in the Centre. Of course this was a hit – they gave out 126 ice creams in 45 minutes!

There were also information stalls at schools, playgroups, preschools; childrens activities and engagement at community days including NAIDOC Week and the Biripi Baby Show, and getting involved with the Manning Gardens Public School Book Week Parade and R U OK Day.

Looking good, as well as working well

Additional funding in the form of a $25,000 Strengthening Rural Communities grant, thanks to the generosity of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, also helped the community create the amazing artwork that adorns the inside and outside of the building. “Many hands build, create and unite” was the name of a multifaceted art project that collaborated with local children. It embodied the aim to have as many “hands” from community create the artwork that will be displayed in the Centre. This amazing creative project involved handing out 500 squares of ply to local early childhood and primary schools in the area, to be painted, returned and combined into a large mural. They also had 40 children cutting shapes out of paper, and these creative shapes were turned into large cutouts to make a feature wall.

Through the direct participation of children and families in the Art and Design workshops, which were facilitated by local artists, the voices and stories of local residents – children and adults alike – were embedded in the walls of the building. This gave children and families a sense of pride, respect and involvement in and ownership of the Centre.

Participation in the art and cultural activities also contributed to the healing and resilience of the community, following the impact of significant natural disasters including the Black Summer bushfires.

The Centre is truly beautiful, and includes many surprising materials and co-designed elements. Lovely green tiles installed in the bathroom are made out of recycled glass and old paramedics uniforms! The concrete floors in centre are made of 100% recycled aggregate. The Yarning Circle was created and built by Outfit Newcastle working with Aboriginal students from Chatham High School and volunteers from the University of Newcastle. It’s filled with materials that might normally be considered waste from the construction project.

Another highlight of the project for the community was the tiled wall mural. Project arts coordinator Ali Haigh explains why:

“It is a brilliant design method that enables people of all ages and painting abilities to have their work included in a collaborative piece and the children who contributed are proud to share it with the community.

“We consider this integrated design to be one of the project’s most successful outcomes as it seamlessly connects the floor to the walls and extends from the interior of the building to the outdoor play spaces. By blending art and architecture in this way, we have created a space that promotes community cohesion and fosters a sense of belonging among those who use it,” she said.

Nancy, one of FRRR’s Program Managers, attended the opening event, alongside some of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation team, who have long been supporters of this program. It was also wonderful to see FRRR’s Chairman Tim Fairfax AC, Gina Fairfax AC, FRRR’s inaugural chair Ian Sinclair AC and to have Rosemary Sinclair, who has been a key advocate of early years learning, join virtually.

FRRR is so pleased to have played a small part in helping bring this Centre to life. It was truly special to be part of this celebration and see just how embedded this amazing facility is in this community.

Congratulations to all the staff, volunteers and donor partners who have made this possible. We know it will make a huge impact for many years to come.