Say hi to Natalie Saroglia, the Coordinator of Burdekin Neighbourhood Centre for over 20 years, and this month’s Local Community Hero.
Natalie’s Neighbourhood Centre journey started in 1997. She was just 20 years old and teaching music when the opportunity to work in her local Neighbourhood Centre presented itself.
“Initially I had no interest in working at the Centre, I happened to know the president of the Centre because I went to school with her children. She thought I would be a good fit for one of the programs, but instead, I ended up on their board as the youth representative.”
“I had no idea what the Neighbourhood Centre did when I started, it was just this building – that looked like a normal house, here in Burdekin. And after I came on board, I stayed, I have no idea why, but I just stayed.”
She began as a volunteer and sat on the Management Committee before beginning a paid administrative role. Finally, she was offered the job of Centre Coordinator. Natalie is incredibly humble about her work, despite running the Centre for 20 years with funding that only partially supported: herself, two part-time admin staff, and an 8-hour finance officer.
“We do what we can – like most Neighbourhood Centres – it can be hard.”
Since the funding increase in last year’s state budget, Natalie has been able to bring a Community Development worker onto the team, extending their centre’s capacity to work with the community and they are all excited to broaden the horizons of the work they’d like to do. When asked about goals for the Centre, Natalie expressed a passion for Compassionate Communities, which promotes social approaches to providing support for death, dying and grieving. This is a cause that is deeply connected to her own personal experiences.
“My husband was sick for 12 years prior to his passing, it was an incredibly intense time, in and out of the hospital. When he got his cancer diagnosis – things were going reasonably ok – but after receiving his terminal diagnosis – we only had him for another 3 months.”
“At that time, I sat here as a community worker with access to services and all the information we may have needed, but I just couldn’t make it happen. As we all know – you go into crisis mode, and you just lose the capacity to be able to do things. It really shocked me.”
From that experience, Natalie wanted to be part of the solution to how the community could be proactive when it came to all things death related.
“It really stemmed from my own needs and my own grief journey. Searching out that information – and I’m wondering, how did I not know about this?”
“If I didn’t know, despite my own role here, then how is the average person supposed to know?”
Natalie started pushing for prevention, education and open conversations about death, dying and grief in a way that felt natural and organic for her community. She highlighted the tensions she felt in her personal story influencing the Centre’s work.
“I struggle with my personal story feeding into the centre’s work sometimes, because it’s not supposed to be about me or my story, but I was motivated by how my story seemed so similar to other people’s struggles. It’s obviously a gap for a lot of people.”
The honest and raw discussions Natalie has with community members are what drive and feed the work of her Centre.
“I shared what happened to me and people could relate, and at the end of the day, we are really fortunate to have a really flexible approach. Everything we do is governed by what our community wants and needs.”
“Our mission is to make the lives of the people of Burdekin better every day, and what that looks like is going to change constantly based on what they need.”
Despite having no formal training when she first started her role, Natalie’s natural approach to her work is a deep embodiment of participatory community development.
“When I finally started doing courses and learning about community development I thought, Yes! This just feels right.”
Prior to her more formal education on community development, she explained that it was the stories that came from the people in her community that initially shaped her attitudes, beliefs and her approach to working with the community.
“Way back in 2005 we had a young girl put an article in the local paper about her mental health journey, she was actually a former music student of mine. She wanted to do a forum to bring people together to open a conversation and tell her story – this was back when mental health didn’t have the volume it does now.”
“I reached out to see if we could provide support and let her know she could contact our Centre. She did, and a lot of other services started to reach out to her as well. We all saw the importance of what she was doing. As planning went on – her vision for this event got sucked up by the bureaucracy of service delivery red tape, it was horrible to watch. In the end, this young woman threw her hands up, saying that this wasn’t what she wanted. The event went ahead – the young lady still participated, and it was a success, it really helped mental health take off in the region. But at the core of it, this young woman wasn’t heard.”
“The thing that stuck in my head for the last 19 years [since that event] is the fact that people’s stories matter, people need validation for their experiences. That has been the biggest moment for me that’s influenced my work. Even though at the time I was young and didn’t know what community development was, I could see that what transpired was wrong, and I wanted to do things differently. That’s when I discovered community development and it all aligned for me.”
Natalie has grown to become fascinated by people and their journeys. She was light-hearted and joked about how she didn’t use to be a big people-person, but now, she is intensely passionate about her Centre’s ability to play even the smallest positive role in changing someone’s life.
She’s excited about how the network of Neighbourhood and Community Centres has evolved over time and what the future holds.
“I’ve had the privilege of being part of the network as the North Qld Representative with Neighbourhood Centres Queensland back when it was called CCFNAQ. We had a vision back then of what the network would be like, but we were all workers in our own Centres, and we just couldn’t make it happen. Our dream was to have staff like the ones NCQ has now, and to see where the network is today is absolutely amazing, I love it.”
Published: April 2023
Written By: Taylor Bast