TWO years on from when the Greatest Need Project first told the story of a Sunshine Hospital social worker helping domestic violence victims to regain some vital dignity through gifts so simple as basic toiletries or a donated handbag, Diane Neri bashfully admits she has since developed a reputation in the emergency department.
“Yes, I’m the handbag lady now!” says Neri, who has had to find space for her growing collection of items in overflowing lockers across hospitals in Footscray, Williamstown and her permanent base at Sunshine.
The title is well-earned. After amassing an initial stock of 60 handbags to give out, Neri has been able to hand out over 100 in the meantime to women who in some cases have had to leave their entire lives behind to escape violent and abusive circumstances.
While happy to be able to offer this modest form of support thanks to assistance provided by the Handbags for Dignity charity initiative, Neri was keen to expand the assistance given in order to respond to emerging new and urgent needs.
“We found that we were seeing an increase in the homeless population in the area who were coming to us without adequate clothing, and that also included men,” she notes.
“We’re regularly purchasing clothing like tracksuit pants, socks, lightweight shoes and swags. There are a lot of homeless people who sleep rough as opposed to going to crisis accommodation, so if we can give them a swag at least it’s weather-proof for the winter months.”
In line with the incredibly diverse population of the West, one area that particularly stands out for Neri is a recent increase in the number of refugee families who are presenting to emergency departments for help.
“There was one case of a refugee family comprising an elderly mother and her two adult sons. They were in quite a distressing situation but we were able to help through the Greatest Need Project,” she says.
“That family has particularly stuck with me because when my colleague and I sat down with them in their own home they retold their story of getting to Australia, and that was very confronting for us.”
Not knowing where to go, Neri says it was simply a matter of desperation that prompted the family to call an ambulance, as is the case with others in similar situations where she has been able to help thanks to funds made available through donations.
“There was a threat of them becoming homeless. We worked really hard on their behalf and we were able to help pay for some of their rent and food, and advocate for them getting a unit that was relatively new compared to the housing they were initially put into.”
Casting her mind back to the starting point helping domestic violence victims – including stories of women who had to flee a car stopped at traffic lights, or agree to pretend not to speak English so they could reach the relative safety of the hospital – Neri reveals her understated acts of kindness still regularly provoke profound emotional reactions.
“There are lots of tears. These women just don’t expect it at all; it’s the kindness and respect that they haven’t been shown by those people who have inflicted these injuries on them.”
The Greatest Need Project is an online story-sharing website with two major goals – to help patients facing significant hardship and disadvantage, and to facilitate research, at Western Health.
As a staff member, Diane Neri is sharing her story in bid to help those at Western Health who need it most.
By making a donation on Diane’s behalf – and sharing her story on social media – you are making a difference too. Thank you.