PEOPLE: How Angela Wood is supporting communities with a Big Group Hug

Angela Wood started Big Group Hug as a way to redistribute pre-loved goods to vulnerable families. During the pandemic, the need for these services has skyrocketed, while the means to deliver the services have become more challenging. In this interview, Angela shares how she has established Big Group Hug as a volunteer-led organisation over the years, and how she has navigated the pandemic to help as many as she can.

  • How has the pandemic impacted Big Group Hug’s work and purpose?

The pandemic has been a stark reminder of what we’ve always known but never really had to face: no matter how comfortable we feel, many of us are only a few pay cheques away from being unable to cover our bills. It has hit our existing client base very hard – those who were already vulnerable due to financial hardship, single parents, risk of family violence, newly arrived families, those seeking asylum, families experiencing homelessness, illness, disability and intergenerational poverty.

Many people who were just scraping by have lost what little income they may have had and are dealing with extra pressures of having school-age children home 24/7. The lockdown has also meant that many of their social supports – such as grandparents who may help care for the children – are no longer able to help. Then you add to that all the people who have never had to ask for help before, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of requests we receive for material aid.

It’s all been a bit of a perfect storm for us, because at the same time as the requests for our services have been increasing, we’ve faced multiple challenges which have impacted our ability to operate and fulfill requests. For example, the lockdown restrictions have impacted both our ability to receive donations from our supporters and have also drastically reduced the number of volunteers that we can have in our warehouse to sort donations and process requests.

For example, this year we’ve responded to about 25% more requests compared to last year, but at times we’ve only had around 40% of our normal team working to process and fulfil them. It’s been really tough.

Back before all this happened, our main source of donations was people in the community who would come to our warehouse and donate pre-loved baby and children’s items which we would sort, clean, and fold and then re-home with a disadvantaged family that needed them. In the early days of the pandemic, we switched to contactless donation days, where people would book a slot to drive up and drop off their donations. These were very popular and would usually book out within about 12 hours, with 40 – 50 cars coming through in a morning.

But when we went into stage four restrictions, we had to cancel the donation days as well. We were running out of things like nappies and baby hardware (cots, prams, car seats etc), and had to get very resourceful to source them. You don’t want to have to turn down anyone who’s asking for help. If I can’t get a child nappies – it keeps me awake at night.

We’re very fortunate that so many local businesses and companies took our calls and came through for us with the things we needed when we were absolutely desperate. Just last week one of our volunteers even bought and donated nine brand new prams. It’s such a disheartening time to see so much suffering in our own communities, but it’s also been inspiring to see how our communities have responded to it and stepped up to help whenever we’ve asked.

  • How has the work you’re doing with children changed over the years?

When I first had the idea for Big Group Hug, it was just me calling up and asking maternal child health nurses what families needed and then sourcing pre-loved goods from my friends and networks. I was storing everything in my garage (and then my dining room, and then my hallway) and delivering the donations to the families myself. It was very humbling to go into people’s houses and realise how rough some families were living.

When Big Group Hug was formed, we formalised the process of taking and fulfilling requests. We’re just mums and dads and grandparents and carers. We don’t have any real specialty in social work or the expertise to deal with complex disadvantage, so we work through referrals from maternal health nurses, hospitals, and other social services. In most cases we never meet or have any contact with the people we help, but we don’t do it for the thank you. Whether we hear it or not, we know that what we’re doing makes a difference, and that’s enough for us.

In the beginning, I was just collecting anything I could find, and then trying to match it with the requests I got. Now we have a clear list of the kinds of items that we accept and what people can request. They can ask for as few or as many items from that list as they need. The first thing I ever provided was a single highchair. Now, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve driven up to a hospital and filled a labour suite with everything that newborn baby might need for the first year.

We’ve obviously grown over the years and now operate out of a warehouse and are assisted by almost 200 volunteers but are still small by charity standards. There are bigger organisations out there, but one of the advantages of being a smaller organisation is we can remain agile. From the start I wanted us to be community led and that helped shape Big Group Hug into what it is. I was determined we wouldn’t become bureaucratic but stay nimble so we can react quickly to changing needs and circumstances.

  • What have been the biggest drivers of change?

The economic and social impact of an extended period of lockdown are prime drivers of change for those we serve as well as for our organisation. Demand from those who have not traditionally sought material aid has risen and in particular, families who have no access to economic recovery packages are seeking help.

On the plus side, a culture of help-seeking has developed among communities that have heard of our service which has led to a rise in demand.

  • Looking at the rest of 2020 and beyond, what do you see as the biggest challenges for Big Group Hug?

We don’t get any government funding. We’re also a fully volunteer-run organisation; we don’t have the resources to pay any staff. Basically, we’re reliant on the kindness and generosity of everyday people in our community to keep the lights on and the material aid going out.

That includes the mums who donate their pre-loved baby and children’s items. The grandparents who volunteer in the warehouse. The Foundations and businesses who give us small grants. The companies who donate goods in kind. Everybody gives what they can, and in the end it’s just enough to keep us going.

It would be nice to have more reliable and robust income streams, especially to cover our major expenses such as rent for the warehouse, but we’re grateful we’re able to do as much as we do and we know the families we help are too.

Another COVID-related challenge is that economic pressure on families and businesses post lockdown may result in a decrease in economic support from mums and dads who have traditionally supported us.

  • How are you planning to overcome these challenges?

Relationships. Human connections are more important than ever, and we plan to reach out to as many families as possible to ensure no child goes without. Expanding our work is the best way to rebuild. An empty warehouse means a full cupboard and a safe, warm and comfortable child, so we hope to spread our work as far and wide as possible, building and growing relationships.

There is a way for everyone to contribute to our work – an individual who wishes to volunteer, donate, spread the word; a business who wishes to donate, participate in corporate volunteering; a community organisation wishing to partner with us to build community support for families.

One unexpected thing that came out of the pandemic for us was the Working for Victoria program. Our local council managed to secure funding for several employees who are employed by the council but have been made available to us to help out in various capacities. We only have them for six months, but we’re hoping we can use that time and their various talents to make more corporate connections and identify funding opportunities that will set us up to be more stable and secure in the long term. We’ve got this far on love and grit and generosity – some substantial financial resources would be phenomenal.

About the expert

Angela Wood is the Founder of Big Group Hug and an original board member. As a teacher and mother of three, she’s always held a strong belief that all children have the universal right to be safe, nurtured and well fed with access to essential items, housing and education.

Two things planted the seed for what was to become Big Group Hug. Firstly, Angela read an article describing a mum-to-be, 7 months pregnant and seeking asylum, with none of the essentials she needed to provide care for her baby. Secondly, she came across a perfectly good pram disposed of on the footpath. This motivated Angela to redistribute many of the pre-loved items she had used for her own children to families in her local area who were visibly struggling.

When Big Group Hug was founded in 2014, Angela would store donated items at her house and distribute them to vulnerable families herself. Now, Big Group Hug operates out of a warehouse and donations and requests for material aid are sorted and processed by a team of close to 200 volunteers.

Despite recently returning to teaching full-time, Angela remains a Co-Director of Big Group Hug and is still heavily involved in the management of the organisation.

Image description: Photo of Angela smiling at the camera in a white blouse and grey vest in the middle of a warehouse with lots of stacked boxes of clothes.


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