Sector champion: Sandie de Wolf

Photo of Berry Street CEO Sandie de Wolf

Berry Street chief executive officer Sandie de Wolf is stepping down, but not out. After 43 years working in community services, she is still keen to find new ways to contribute and make the world a better place. By KELLEE NOLAN 

One of the best-known leaders of Victoria’s community sector, Sandie de Wolf, is getting ready for a new “post-Berry Street” life.

After 26 years as Berry Street chief executive officer Ms de Wolf is stepping down in December. But she’s quick to point out is not retiring, but rather, looking for new ways to help build a more inclusive, sustainable society.

“I’ve been in this sector since 1974, so that’s 43 years, so it sort of gets in your blood really,” Ms de Wolf told Insight. “So I want to look at what else I can be doing to continue the fight.”

quotation marks

I’ve been in this sector since 1974, so that’s 43 years, so it sort of gets in your blood really. I want to look at what else I can be doing to continue the fight.

Berry Street’s mission is to ensure all children have a good childhood, and as Ms de Wolf prepares to move on, she feels “a bit of a sense of disappointment” that she has not been able to “solve the problem”.

“But that was always probably a bit unrealistic really.”

She has seen the challenges facing vulnerable children change over the years.

Substance abuse in some families has moved from largely being alcohol driven, to an increasing use of multiple and illicit drugs, in turn leading to increasingly complex mental health issues.

Society has also become more informed around the effects of abuse on children’s brain development, the impact of family violence and the understanding that Aboriginal community-controlled organisations need to play a far greater role in their communities.

There is also the growing impact of social media and its potential to exploit vulnerable children, as well as rising inequality, lack of housing affordability and society’s attitude to offshore detention.

“More broadly I think I’m worried about how we as a community sector encourage politicians to base their policies on evidence and what works, rather than what’s driven through the media and populist policies,” Ms de Wolf says.

She believes the community sector’s challenge is to work together in a more sustained way to set agendas and influence political parties, rather than getting “overwhelmed” by day-to-day operational issues and reacting to policy on the run.

“I think generally we’re quite good at coming together when there’s a problem, around homelessness or Smart Justice for example.

“We’ll do some good work for a relatively short period of time, but we’re not sustaining it. So I think it’s about how we sustain it over time and keep a focus on whatever we decide is the key focus.

“It’s a big ask I know, but I think that’s what we need to do… I think we’d have a lot more success.”

But before all that comes a much looked forward to holiday – venturing first down to Antarctica by boat, and then travelling for a month around South America.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do when I finished work and it’s come together so that will be fabulous, and I’ll be back in February and heaven knows what will happen then.”

She admits stepping out into a new era is “a bit scary”, but is looking forward to it – and to seeing more of her grandkids and her beloved ‘Blues’ in the AFL.

“It’s really about the next stage and how I continue to make a contribution, and that’s what I’m looking forward to. Finding new ways to do it.”

Downtime

WHAT ARE YOU READING NOW? Light and Shadow – Memoirs of a spy’s son, by Mark Colvin
SWEET OR SAVOURY?   Savoury
WHAT DO YOU DO TO RELAX?
It’s sort of an oxymoron, but I’m a very keen Carlton supporter. It’s meant to be relaxing, but it’s so stressful! And I love walking and being in nature.
A MOVIE YOU LOVE… Love Actually – I just love the airport scene at the beginning; and The Castle – I’m very much into “the vibe”.

 

If you know of someone working at a VCOSS member organisation who would make a great ‘Sector Champion’, please contact Insight at publications@vcoss.org.au

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