When a staff member advised Kildonan CEO Stella Avramopoulos she had just made the shortlist for the 2015 Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 – a list identifying the 25 most influential people in Australia’s community sector – she laughed.
‘Ha!’ the 43 year old scoffed, in her typically straight forward fashion, ‘No I’m not’. And she promptly returned to her phone call. She didn’t even know who had nominated her.
So how did a Greek girl from Reservoir (a self-proclaimed ‘Reservoir Wog’), who spoke no English when she started school, find herself a contender for one of the most influential people in Australia’s social services sector?
Born to Greek immigrants who’d arrived in the 60s, her parents were typical of the era – poor, but willing to do anything to carve out a better life for their children. Having completed his tailoring apprenticeship in Greece, her father washed plates, worked in the slaughter yards and held down a number of factory jobs before meeting Stella’s mother and opening a Fish and Chip shop in the early 70s. A café, then a furniture business followed, with Stella and her siblings largely raised by her live-in grandparents, her aunt and uncle across the road and the steady stream of new arrivals her parents always somehow found the time to help out. When her father was in his 30s he finally had the means to open his own clothing manufacturing business in Brunswick and pursue his tailoring passion.
‘My parents always made it very clear that money doesn’t grow on trees and instilled us with an exceptionally strong work ethic.’
By 12 Stella was spending her school holidays working in the family clothing business. Her father made suits for detectives, magistrates and lawyers – and one day when a Children’s Court magistrate came in for a suit, he convinced him to take on his daughter for her Year 10 work experience.
It was here she spent time shadowing a criminologist – an experience she says left her ‘frightened and shocked’ and in an utter state of disbelief that young people could experience such extreme neglect.
There and then, she knew what she wanted to do – play a role in improving the lives of young people.
After VCE she enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts majoring in criminology. Shortly after graduation she got a job in the Geelong Corrections Department – where they promptly hung a whistle around her neck and sent her into Barwon Prison to work with some of history’s most notorious criminals.
On her first day as she was walking across the yard, someone called her name and she came face to face with a boy from school. As he shared his story, she was struck by the similarities of their pasts – yet a series of unfortunate incidents had for him escalated until he’d found himself ‘on the wrong side of the fence.’
She never forgot that encounter and it was ultimately why she left. ‘I needed to get to these kids earlier.’
A stint running a Council Youth Centre followed but when she saw a Team Leader job come up with Kildonan – the job description read like her nirvana.
‘It had youth, families and community elements all rolled up into one and this is what was becoming more clear to me – you can never look at a person’s issues in isolation because more often than not – the presenting problem is just the tip of the iceberg.’
For eight years she worked her way through various roles at Kildonan. She had a son and was studying her MBA when she found herself in the top job. Just four months later – the 2008 bushfires hit.
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.
‘The bushfires reminded me that vulnerability doesn’t discriminate – and that no matter what the issue, people need to be treated the same – with dignity and respect. You need to work with people – it’s about building capacity and personal agency. It’s about being welcoming.’
Gaining the respect of her staff, board and stakeholders through that tumultuous time, she now had the momentum to start testing some fresh innovation. Driven by her long held beliefs that early and holistic intervention were key to ultimately reducing demand on the country's overwhelmed community welfare sector, she took a particular interest in work being done to conduct home energy visits. With utility bills soaring and the incidence of 'middle-class debt' on the rise, the primary driver behind this program was to assist people to use energy more efficiently and to help them better understand their bills.
However the opportunity to enter into someone’s home was revealing further insights. Often, evidence of co-occurring issues that were contributing to the financial difficulty were observed. It became clear to Kildonan that to provide a really effective service – more was required, and ‘the Kildonan Model’ – using an energy visit as an entry point, but then providing a more holistic service if required – was born.
The model made so much sense, the Federal Government based the national ‘Home Energy Saver Scheme (HESS)’ on it, and had Kildonan administer the scheme nationally while delivering it locally. In 2013, Kildonan again worked with the Federal Government to launch yet another Australian first – a version of HESS designed specifically for the indigenous community known as the Koori Energy Efficiency Program (KEEP).
Meanwhile, Kildonan started taking the concept further. In 2013 the agency started working closely with Yarra Valley Water to test a pilot program known as ‘CareRing’ – a one stop shop designed to identify customers at the earliest stages of financial difficulty to ensure they received an integrated and seamless response addressing any other issues that may have been contributing to the their difficulties in managing their bills (such as family violence, drugs or alcohol abuse, employment issues etc).
Launched formally at the end of 2014, CareRing now has the likes of ANZ, Origin Energy and Western Water on board, with Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact evaluating the results.
At the same time, Kildonan’s Social and Financial Inclusion and Enterprise Partnerships team is working with the likes of NAB, AGL, Energy Australia and Credit Corp to train their frontline staff on how to more effectively AND respectfully deal with their hardship customers.
'If we do this right, we do ourselves out of a job,' Stella says.
Bringing such big corporate guns to the table of Kildonan’s little converted warehouse head office in Collingwood is no small feat – for the corporate and community sectors have not traditionally shared the same sand pit. Or even hung out at the same park. But as Stella believes, we have to find new ways of doing things that don’t solely rely on the government’s purse.
‘No one sector can independently resolve societal issues – the complex and interrelated issues of hardship. We’ve got to learn that we all share the ‘same customer’ and it will be our capacity and willingness to embed, or align our services, that will result in the best safety net for families.’
And corporates and government are listening – lining up to join forces with this relatively small community welfare agency of 200 staff that is quite literally changing the paradigm of caring.
Having had great mentors and being a firm believer in `paying it forward', Stella has embraced her role in the Police Mentoring Program, which she became involved in through her membership of the Melbourne Central Sunrise Rotary Club.
She currently mentors a female Senior Sergeant and two other potential future leaders.
Stella has two children now, her second son born while in the role of CEO. Does she have time for mother guilt? No. Has she experienced it? Of course – every day for the past eight years. Until she recently read something her son had written on the class topic of Leadership.
‘I was amazed,’ Stella explains, ‘that at 10 years old, my son had not once used the words ‘he’ or ‘him’ throughout his leadership essay. And it was at that point, that I felt like I really might be making a difference, in both a very small yet very significant way.’
Stella made the list, and has officially been voted one of the 25 most influential people in Australia's social services sector in 2015!
For the full list of winners and more information, click here.