Tags: Health Community connectedness Relationships

“So many of the families come back to us and say, ‘You saved my child, you saved my marriage, you saved our family life, you’ve given us hope for the future.’”—Jacqui Emery, Chief Executive Officer, Royal Far West

Key points

  • Royal Far West is an Australian Unity Foundation partner committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of country children.
  • The organisation seeks to support children’s behavioural, developmental and mental health. It also aims to tackle service gaps that affect rural and remote families and communities.
  • One of Royal Far West’s key initiatives is it’s Child and Family Services, which assesses children with the help of an expert team of multidisciplinary healthcare professionals. The service is life-changing for its participants, highlighting the critical work Royal Far West is doing in rural and remote communities.

We’ve all seen the headlines about Australia’s rural health crisis. And it’s a crisis that’s having a very real impact, as the last six years of
Australian Unity Wellbeing Index data—which shows that Australians living in outer regional areas have below-average satisfaction with their health—demonstrates. But way back in 1924, Reverend Stanley Drummond was already trying to bridge the gap.

A resident of the mining town of Cobar, Drummond knew that children living in rural areas often faced a precarious existence. After an inspiring trip to Manly beach, he began regularly bringing country children there for respite by the sea. Then, in 1926, a Northern Beaches surgeon named Dr George Moncrieff Barron noticed the country children’s medical needs and became aware of the lack of access to health services where they live. Immediately, he offered his services to Drummond free of charge. “You look after their souls,” Dr Moncrieff Barron told the Reverend. “And I will look after their bodies.”

“It always gives me the shivers that quote,” says Jacqui Emery, Chief Executive Office of Royal Far West. “Because almost 100 years on, that’s still very much our mantra today. Our mission is to improve the health and wellbeing needs of these children.”

A century of support

That fateful meeting between Reverend Drummond and Dr Moncrieff Barron was the genesis of Royal Far West, Australia’s only national charity dedicated to improving the welfare of country children.

The charity specialises in supporting children’s behavioural, developmental and mental health so they can reach their full potential, and strives to tackle service gaps for rural and remote communities. The Australian Unity Foundation has partnered with Royal Far West since 2006 as part of our commitment to Real Wellbeing, which sees us invest a percentage of our annual profits in initiatives that boost the wellbeing of individuals and their communities.

One of Royal Far West’s key initiatives is its Child and Family Services. The service provides comprehensive assessments for children with complex behavioural, developmental and mental health needs with the help of an expert team of doctors, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, audiologists and more.

“All the children who come to us arrive because of some learning problem or delay. The adults around them are worried about how they’re going,” explains Kristen Renshaw, Royal Far West’s Clinical Lead for Social Work.

That’s the cue for the Royal Far West team to undertake a comprehensive multidisciplinary assessment of the child to try to pinpoint their specific issue and identify the best form of support to help them.

“The families of these children have told us that they learn so much just by going through the assessments,” says Kristen. “They learn to look at what their children aren't doing or are doing differently. For these parents, getting to know how to help their children can make a huge difference, so things start going much better for them both at home and school.”

The power of early intervention

Yet the assessment is just the first stage. In remote areas of the country, securing access to the right form of care for complex or special needs is often challenging. Even if you manage to circumvent the inevitable waiting lists, the distances that children need to travel for treatment can prove daunting.

“If there aren’t local services in place, or if there’s a long waitlist, these children can stay connected to us,” continues Kristen. “They can have telecare or maybe even come back to us [at Royal Far West’s base in Manly] until those connections are in place.”

The impact of these services on both the children and their families can often prove genuinely life-changing. “So many families come back to us and say, ‘You saved my child, you saved my marriage, you saved our family life, you’ve given us hope for the future,’” Jacqui states.

Timely intervention and support can help change child’s life trajectory, as developmental challenges frequently manifest themselves in behavioural issues. Children may become withdrawn or struggle to engage at school, harming their long-term prospects. In such instances, the efforts of Royal Far West are crucial in helping to get these children back on track.

Jacqui, for example, recalls one boy who was supported by a range of services from Royal Far West, resulting in him overcoming the social obstacles that had previously held him back.

“His mum told me that when he was going home, he was going to attend his very first birthday party at 10 years of age,” she says. “It was really only through the support of Royal Far West that he was able to develop those skills and make friends for the first time.”

"We now know that we're not alone"

One day, Charmaine was collecting her sons from daycare in central west New South Wales when the teachers took her aside. They’d noticed her children were struggling with their learning and speech development. This, in turn, was making it difficult for them to socialise.

“They encouraged us to take the boys to our local GP and speak to them about certain learning delays that they were possibly observing in the boys,” she says. “One of the childcare directors mentioned Royal Far West and said that it was a fantastic service for children from rural, remote areas and that it would give them access to assessments for learning delays and disabilities.”

Following their assessment, the family was invited to visit Royal Far West in Manly for further treatment and services. “It's a magical place, like a home away from home,” says Charmaine. “The team just made us feel so welcome.”

That first visit enabled the family to access a multidisciplinary team of health and wellbeing professionals and harness a specially tailored telecare program to aid the children’s development.

“The difference in the boys now is absolutely phenomenal,” says Charmaine. “They are doing so well at school. My oldest son struggled socially, but now he’s in mainstream schooling and has many friends.”

An additional benefit for Charmaine and her husband has been meeting other parents with children facing challenges similar to their sons'.

“We now know that we’re not alone. After our first visit, we went back home to our community and to our family, friends and school to spread the word about what we've experienced [with Royal Far West]. We’re so blessed.”

Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.