Sharing skills to address disadvantage

With a career spanning more than two decades in the social services sector, there is no denying Gary Christensen has a drive to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people. 

Assuming the position of director of CatholicCare Hunter-Manning in March 2017, Mr Christensen quickly earned the respect of staff for his collaborative approach and innovative thinking.

Collaborating with local government and non-government communities to address areas of disadvantage, inequity and vulnerability across our Diocese with his passionate and determined team drives Mr Christensen each day.

Buoyed by his faith, he is particularly interested in the business community coming together to address men’s health, particularly, men’s mental health issues.

  1. Did you attend Catholic school/s? If so, why did your parents choose catholic schools, and what are your memories?

Yes, I attended St Patrick’s Primary School Swansea from kindergarten to year 6, then St Mary’s High School Gateshead from year 7 to 10, and I finished my schooling at St Francis Xavier Hamilton. My parents wanted me to have a faith-based education, they appreciated the high academic standards taught at Catholic schools, and they valued the pastoral care. I have fond memories of being taught by some of the Sisters of St Joseph at St Patrick’s with one of them, Sr Ellen Shanahan still involved with my eldest son’s school at St Clare’s in Taree. St Patrick’s was a great school community with parents, teachers, students and the parish priest coming together for regular social events that built lasting relationships.

  1. What drew you to work in the social services sector?

I have been working in the social services sector for the past 26 years. I think what originally drew me to the sector was the chance to share living skills with vulnerable young people that I thought could help them get along in their everyday lives. I began my career as a volunteer youth worker teaching marginalised young people self defence and cooking. At the time I started volunteering, I had been heavily involved in surf lifesaving as an instructor, I was also a martial arts instructor and I was cooking in a commercial kitchen at a restaurant in Newcastle. I had a transferable skills set that provided me with an avenue to be a volunteer and that led to my first paid job as a youth worker working with at-risk young people. Since then I have worked across the social services sector in Newcastle, Sydney, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

  1. What motivates you in your position as the director of CatholicCare?

I am highly motivated by the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people. At CatholicCare, our mission is to listen and respond by working together with local communities to build a stronger, fairer and kinder society that values children, young people, families and individuals. The notion of working with local communities across our diocese to address areas of disadvantage, inequity and vulnerability drives me each day. I am privileged to lead a professional, passionate and determined team who are focused on working in partnership with participants and the wider community to achieve positive outcomes for vulnerable people.

  1. October is Mental Health Awareness month. You have been particularly vocal about men’s mental health. What do you think are the biggest barriers to men receiving help and how as a community can we better support them?

The biggest barrier to men seeking and receiving help is the stigma attached to admitting we may be struggling with our mental health. Whilst there are plenty of great initiatives trying to address this issue, we as blokes need to get better at checking in on each other and asking are you OK? Male suicide continues to be a major social issue, young and old. In Australia it remains the biggest single killer of men aged 15–45. As a community, we need to do more to talk about the causes and symptoms of mental health earlier and take a proactive approach to offering support, no matter how small that support may seem.

  1. CatholicCare offers counselling services, which can assist individuals manage their mental health. At what point should someone see a counsellor?

It is never too soon to see a counsellor. We often think that counselling is something that we seek during or after a crisis, and while this may be true, a registered psychologist can offer so much more than that. The way we manage our mental health should be the same way we manage our physical health, that being, a “prevention is better than a cure” approach. Registered psychologists can assist us in a range of areas including helping us work through issues at home, supporting us with strategies to cope with raising kids, setting and achieving realistic goals and managing stress. In my view, the earlier we seek support from a trained professional the more the chance we have at dealing with the bigger issues when they arise.

  1. Is faith a big part of your life? If yes, how has it helped?

Yes, faith is a big part of my life. CatholicCare’s vision of continuing the mission of Christ by offering opportunities for growth, healing and hope resonates strongly with me. I am buoyed by my faith each day, particularly when dealing with some of the more challenging issues that can present in the social services sector.

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Brittany Gonzalez

Brittany Gonzalez is a Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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