A Conversation With Paul Kelly

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“Don’t let the suit fool you. Paul Kelly is in the business of saving lives. As an individual, he focuses on immediate threats to the body and as a leader, he heads an organisation devoted to rebuilding lives impacted by breakdowns or disabilities. Each summer, Paul Kelly patrols beaches as a volunteer surf lifesaver, and he is the relatively new General Manager of CHESS, a not-for-profit employment agency and disability services provider.” 

What attracts you to working in disability employment?

There is nothing more motivating than to see someone secure employment, especially in the face of quite significant barriers.

Australia is one of the lowest ranked OECD (Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development) countries for employing people with a disability, and that’s driving government to look for organisations, like CHESS, with expertise in linking people with disabilities into work.

Why the focus on finding jobs for people with disabilities?

People who have disabilities are still people with skills and abilities who want to work. Quite often in the past, people have had to overcome their problems alone and as an organisation, we have smashed that practice.

When people are unable to work in our society, they feel shut out of the community and of little value. Research has shown us that working can be the best assistance to their own recovery, that they can contribute meaningfully in our economy and this can reduce health care costs to the community in the long term.

They need specialists, such as CHESS, to help them to overcome their barriers to work to instead become job-ready, to find employers willing to give them a go and to support their transition to work.

What if the barriers to work come from the jobseeker themselves?

Often they do.

Not all disabilities are as visible as a wheelchair, and people who have suffered episodes of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other mental health conditions don’t see themselves as disabled and are too embarrassed to ask Centrelink to refer them to CHESS.

You can imagine if someone has held down jobs before, particularly responsible jobs, they would want to conceal they have burnt-out in the past or suffered a mental health episode.

Why should they go to CHESS?

They don’t know that a disability employment service like CHESS will have greater insight and understanding into finding them work that is ‘do-able’, suits their passions, and is meaningful work that enhances their wellbeing.

Sometimes these jobseekers are tertiary educated or highly experienced people with good career track records and references. They may have only been out of work for a short period of time and are keen to work. They are sensitive to being seen as a ‘failure’ or less than what they have achieved prior to having had a mental health episode.

Our business consultants will sit down with these ‘WHITE COLLAR’ candidates to identify what they would like to do and provide support similar to an executive recruitment agency to match them to employers.

They can be referred to CHESS, or they can contact us direct to see how we can assist them.

How do you know when they are ready to work?

Once a person takes responsibility for their mental health, then we consider them job-ready. They will be able to acknowledge their problem and its impact on others, as well as take their medication and see their medical practitioners regularly. They have insight into their mental wellbeing and are accountable for managing the impacts of their condition.

Tell us about the team behind you …

I am grateful to be in a team of people determined to make a difference in our community. Thanks to their efforts to support people with disabilities over the years, CHESS team have a real tenure and right to claim citizenship in our region.

Where have you come from to lead CHESS?

While I took over from the long-serving John Mandile as General Manager a year ago, I was already in CHESS in a HR role. Previously I was CEO of First Pacific Credit Union in Lismore.

What is it like to lead a not-for-profit company?

Just like in credit unions, which exist to serve their members, in not-for-profits there is no confusion about our focus or priority. We are there to service our clients, so we are never conflicted about the interests of external shareholders. We still need to be efficient and to focus on quality, and we need to make some profit to buffer against risk and fund future programs.

What attracted you to surf lifesaving?

I grew up in surf lifesaving, and I still like to do my patrols and occasionally compete in the master surf boats. When I was in the Ballina club, the biggest buzz was winning a silver medal in master surf boats at the Australian titles. I am now looking to join a local club.

Thanks Paul. Contact Paul on 66 919 333

This story was published in issue 22 of the Coffs Coast Focus

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