CLRS CEO reflects on her time at the helm

By Lachlan Durling

AFTER two decades with Community Living & Respite Services, chief executive Suzanna Barry is hanging up her chief executive runners.

That’s not to say she won’t still be a powerful ally for the organisation — or that she won’t still take part in Johnno’s Run every year. No, that would be almost impossible to shake.

After the introduction of more programs and more houses built to support people with disability than you can count on your digits in her 20-year stint, it’s a difficult thing to leave.

She is also the first person to shine the spotlight back on the many employees, volunteers, carers, clients and families in the district who have helped make CLRS what it is today.

Her story is one of humble beginnings — having never been involved with disability services prior, she moved to the then much smaller CLRS before the turn of the millennium.

“I was an assistant manager at a local training organisation which had some involvement with CLRS clients,” Suzanna said.

“So that was my first introduction — if you would call it that — to disability services.”

After some gentle encouragement from Fran Galvin, the CLRS services manager at the time, Suzanna was soon immersed in everything disability services, firstly joining the board and later taking on a coordinator role.

Ten years later, seeing her kids through their early years of schooling, Suzanna found herself leading the organisation when she was appointed chief executive in 2009.

Throughout that time CLRS had blossomed with significantly more staff working with a larger number of families in the region. And a whole lot of programs either already running or in the pipelines.

“When we were looking to establish a shared support accommodation home in Moama we formed a committee of fundraising volunteers,” Suzanna said.

“That project was the beginning of raising the profile of CLRS and highlighting the need for services for people with disability.

“Working with volunteers has been an aspect of the role I have really enjoyed.”

From that point on, CLRS was slowly becoming a household name in Echuca-Moama and district.

As a result, the fundraising capacity increased and soon it was time for another purpose-built house in the twin towns for people with disability — Minor St, Echuca in 2014.

This opened up doors for people with disability to be able to live independently with support when they needed it, hence the name Opening Doors Project.

“We built Minor St in 2014, Eyre St in 2017 and this year Maiden St, Moama. These houses help address a need in town for people with disability, and there are plans to continue this,” Suzanna said.

While 2009 saw Suzanna begin the role of chief executive, it also marked the beginning of Club Teen, a service to support people aged 6 - 18 with disability.

The program positively impacted families in town as their children could now access after school care and school holiday programs which offered more support than conventional programs.

“Up until Club Teen was established, we struggled to have sufficient funding to support families during school holidays. It has really helped parents who work and has given access to specialist support before and after school as well as during school holidays,” Suzanna said.

Add to that Recyclability, the Murray River Tea Rooms, Number 4 Op Shop and Johnno’s Run and you’ll quickly find the clients, volunteers and staff are busier than ever.

“It’s great to be able to engage the community and facilitate opportunities for people in the community to help make a difference,” Suzanna said.

“As well as that, I encourage staff to undertake training and formal qualifications. It’s something I’ve done personally, I’m a firm believer we all need to keep learning.”

If the growth of CLRS throughout the past two decades is any measure of that — it is paying off in spades.

And the community is more than happy to come along for the ride, or support the cause when Johnno’s Run rolls around for another year.

“It’s been such a successful and rewarding opportunity to work with our ambassadors to promote and encourage participants for Johnno’s Run,” Suzanna said.

“I remember in 2015 being one of 40 people to run in Melbourne. It was something that took me out of my comfort zone and prompted me to do the couch to 5km program.

“Now, to see people with disability participate and take on leadership roles is fantastic.”

Reflecting on her 20 years at CLRS and 10 years at the helm, Suzanna said it was a privilege to be able to provide support services to families in the area.

And that one of the hardest parts about when she logs off for the last time today will be the knowledge she won’t be dealing with the CLRS family on a daily basis.

“When I started in 1999 I had no idea it would end up here. It was an interaction with a sector I’d had little to do with previously,’’ she said.

“And the opportunity to make a difference in the community fast became a passion.

“Part of my drive was becoming aware of the responsibility of families caring for a loved one with a disability. The team here has a real determination to do what they can to help and they really are attune to the needs of our clients.

“It has been an absolute privilege working in the sector alongside dedicated staff and volunteers and with the board of management who have such a diverse range of skills.”

Today is Suzanna Barry’s last day with Community Living & Respite Services, Leah McNulty has been announced as interim chief executive until the board appoints a future chief executive.