Phoenix Community Project seeks new home to keep up with demand

Hangout: Phoenix Community Project aims to create a fun and social haven for young people.
Hangout: Phoenix Community Project aims to create a fun and social haven for young people.

A gap in social services for young people with disabilities in Sutherland Shire was enough reason to launch an idea that hit the ground running.

Phoenix Community Project is a non-profit facility that was established in the midst of the pandemic.

Described as the 'ultimate hangout zone for teens who just want to make some mates,' the facility offers programs including school holiday hangouts, day trips, camps and creative hubs.

There's go karting, bowling, surfing, horse riding, game nights, bonfires, game nights, Nintendo and barbecues.

Its support workers also aim to build social and emotional regulation skills, mentor teens to help them get job ready, build confidence in cyber safety, and offer tips on nutrition among others.

Since it opened its doors, it has skyrocketed in popularity, stretching its small four walls to capacity - the clearest sign yet that the need for kids to connect post lockdown is greater than ever.

Phoenix operates from an office at Sutherland, after its previous site at Gymea was re-developed and sold off.

Chief executive Jamie O'Connor reached out to Sutherland Shire Council in the hope a larger premises would be available to cater for the demand of young people seeking support.

"They said they have no premises and we will have to wait," she said.

"We have 40-50 young people aged from about seven to 18 coming to our programs every week and our numbers are growing. There is a massive need."

Inspired by her sister who has a disability, Ms O'Connor, of Heathcote, wanted to give young people the same opportunities to socialise in a 'normal' environment.

"I saw what she was missing out on compared to her mainstream friends," she said. "There's so much segregation and many of them struggle socially.

"So many young people were saying that there was nothing like what we do."

Working previously in child protection and management and in training and community service, Ms O'Connor found a niche in community disability organisations, many that had to adapt their programs to comply with public health orders during lockdown.

"A lot of our young people have comorbidities with mental health - depression or anxiety, so they are already an isolated group, and it's hard for them to make friends," Ms O'Connor said.

"COVID-19 was very isolating for them, especially with people who have disabilities because they like routine and consistency, so having to run our programs on Zoom was challenging."

The facility's charity ball was also cancelled, which was supposed to raise funds for a bus to transport youth, as all support workers use their own vehicles.

"All the progress we made with them coming out of their shell, a part of that was lost during lockdown and it's like starting fresh again," Ms O'Connor said.

"But they are excited to get back."

But a multi-use community hall would be the ideal space to also expand into more programs, including gardening and home maintenance for seniors, year 12 schoolies, and respite.

"We just want somewhere we can set up a few pool tables, and a place where the kids can make it their own," Ms O'Connor said.

"At the moment we have to split our groups, run programs outdoors at the front of community halls.

"I understand there are waitlists but as a non-profit it's not feasible to rent a private hall. I volunteer because I want to ensure every cent does back into the service."

Sutherland Shire Council confirmed it was actively working with Phoenix Community Project as the organisation seeks new premises that will better accommodate the needs of their business and the young people they serve.

A spokesman said the organisation was among a number of community groups that recently lodged an expression of interest to lease a vacant Council held premises at Engadine. But after careful consideration of a number of worthy submissions, the group's application was ultimately unsuccessful, he said.

"Council continues to liaise with Phoenix Community Project representatives to ensure they are aware of financial assistance they can access through Council's community grants and subsidies program," he said.

"Council also continues to aid the organisation in delivering much needed care to local young people living with a disability by providing access to one of our community halls at a reduced rental rate."

The council has 165 buildings which are made available to community groups through long-term tenancies, and a further 33 community facilities that are made available for short term rental.

"Unfortunately it did not have capacity to accommodate all requests we receive for subsidised rental agreements," the spokesman said.

"In order to best accommodate this need, Sutherland Shire Council is currently revising its Community Leasing Policy, with a view to ensuring that all council held facilities are used most effectively to provide maximum benefit to our community.

"This process will be completed in 2022, with council continuing to work with all community groups who will be impacted by this change in policy."