Little Steps Become Big Steps
Carmel Crouch would like to remove two words from the dictionary: ‘disability’ and ‘retire’. Tricia Welsh meets this energetic businesswoman to find out why.
Having dedicated almost her entire life to providing opportunities for people with a disability, Carmel has been able to turn the focus from ‘disability’ to ‘ability’, and she has no intention of retiring.
As Managing Director of STEPS – an organisation she has been involved for more than 32 years “to help the vulnerable”, she still works some 70 hours a week.
“I’ll probably die with my boots on,” said the self-confessed workaholic, as she tells me about the STEPS organisation that has grown to now teach Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as migrants and refugees in regional and remote communities.
When Carmel adopted a son with disabilities all those years ago, little did she realise what far-reaching opportunities she would go on to help create not only for son Matthew, who at 47 still lives at home with her, but hundreds of other children with disabilities too.
With two other children in the family as well, she quickly realised that the training and employment opportunities available to them were not readily available to Matthew.
With a small group of Sunshine Coast parents, all of whom had a child with disability, she took a leading role setting up STEPS, with the express aim to provide opportunities for children with disabilities or autism to achieve self-actualisation and independence.
From its embryonic stage in 1989, STEPS is now a national operation based in Caloundra with 26 locations across Australia employing more than 350 staff nationally, 226 of those on the Sunshine Coast, with an enthusiastic team of 160 volunteers. It has branched out into education and training programs, mental health and disability support, social enterprises, as well as disability employment services and National Disability Insurance Scheme support.
In a purely voluntary capacity, Carmel drove the not-for-profit organisation as Chair and President of its board for 19 years, the past 14 as Managing Director – all this while running her own successful local businesses.
“I guess one of the things I’ve always been really good at is crisis management,” she said. “And I’m a very solutions-orientated person.”
One of her proudest achievements was the realisation in 2017 of STEPS Pathways College, a revolutionary model giving young adults with a disability the opportunity to gain unprecedented levels of independence through holistic life skills education. The first of its kind in Australia, the college attracts students from all over the country to take part in its boarding program, and newly developed day and online programs.
The college offers accommodation for 14 students in modern, self-contained units designed for independent living. There is also 24-hour onsite support for students plus external CCTV for security. The recent acquisition of more units means that during 2021 they will have the capacity to accommodate a total of 26 students.
Students reside at the college for two years learning the skills needed to make a seamless transition into independent living.
“One thing that is very important to us is that we never set somebody up to fail,” Carmel stresses. “We are very careful to be sure that not only the young person is wanting to learn to live independently, but their parents are happy for them to live independently, too.
Specific modules have been written around everything these students need to learn.
“We recreate as near-real life living as we can possibly get,” said Carmel.
“Socialisation is really important. Some days they learn in a classroom environment, the rest of the week is practical – learning ordinary tasks of living life.”
Before leaving college, they are taught how to prepare for work, how to walk into a potential employer with confidence and be able to do the job. “We have a fantastic success rate from our training courses,” Carmel added.
The cost of running STEPS Pathway College is funded through their charity.
An enduring inspiration for all, this astute businesswoman and true community leader was awarded an Australia Day Ambassadorship in 2019 and was one of four nominees for the most recent Queensland Senior Australian of the Year Awards.
But, she confided, the thing that gives her the greatest joy and pleasure is giving parents their own independence. “It’s about giving the parents the independence they were never likely to have,” said Carmel. “That’s the bit that gives me goosebumps. The kids are always going to be great. Once they come in, I know they are going to go out with the most amount of independence they are going to have in their lives. It’s a beautiful program. I’m so proud of it and I’m so proud of the people who work in it. www.stepsgroup.com.au
Support STEPS Today
STEPS operate a number of community projects and social ventures aimed at improving well-being, building skills, and developing pathways toward independence. Support these initiatives today:
Buy quality plants and gardening supplies and experience the joy and benefits of gardening.
9 George Street, Caloundra (enter via Ulm Street)
Mon-Fri, 8.30-4.30pM, Sat: 9am-4pm,
Sun 9am-2pm. Phone 5436 6023
STEPS CAR CLEANING
Professional car cleaning and detailing service that comes to your workplace using the best cleaning products and materials.
From $55 per car (minimum three cars)
Phone 5448 3000
STEPS COMMERCIAL CLEANING
An experienced and reliable cleaning service offering customised solutions to suit any business or budget. Perfect for Medical Centres, Resort Complexes, Child Care Centres, office premises.
Call 5458 3000 for a free quote.