Through setting up the Coffs Community and Connections Groups, PJ and Tod have become a local force to be reckoned with, bringing people from all walks of life together to celebrate diversity, share experiences, fight feelings of isolation and strengthen our community from the ground up. FOCUS attended the Ref-YOU-gee Week Freedom Feast to see them in action, chat about what led them to start the groups and hear about all the exciting projects they are currently involved in.
What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?
PJ: Coming from India and having lived in Italy, UK, and a few other parts of the world, I moved to Coffs about 10 months ago as an Endeavour Scholar studying Community Services Work at TAFE – and boy, am I loving it! I already feel like I belong.
Tod: I was born in Sydney and have been coming to Coffs Harbour for about seven years. I moved here two years ago and never want to leave. The diversity of the people and the landscape in the surrounding areas is just stunning.
What are the Coffs Connection and Community (CCC) and LGBTIQ CCC groups?
CCC and LGBTIQ CCC groups were created as a space for people to come together in a spirit of celebration and be more engaged and active in community.
In essence, we are a partnership hub collaborating with organisations to create bigger, better community events, as well as a communication hub that can be seen as a “what’s on” page in Coffs, so our members are aware of how to get more involved in community – thus fighting isolation and the whole connected spectrum of mental health issues.
We focus on the strengths in our area and the skills of our members and see how they can be used for the benefit of our community. We don’t have all the solutions, but know that all of us together can solve any problem in the world – so we listen, listen more, and listen deeply!
Can you share your personal journeys that led to starting these groups?
PJ: Being born in India and seeing disadvantage up close, I always knew I had to do something meaningful and helpful for community. After working at the top end of private corporations and government organisations across India and Europe, I came to understand that real change only occurs at the grassroots level, when citizens get together for a common cause.
Feeling disillusioned by corporates and governments, I decided to move to the Arts and did my MA in Film and TV from the UK, then worked there as an independent filmmaker. As satisfying as this was, there came a point in life that I started asking the bigger questions in life, and my work in cinema led me on a spiritual path living with monks in the Himalayan wilderness, sometimes sleeping under the stars in freezing weather or hidden in caves. It was tough, but enriching.
The monks really grounded me in the ideal of service and showed me how to truly enjoy life by staying fully present in the moment and doing all I can for the benefit of fellow beings. It was in a monastery that I met a friend, who insisted I come to Australia and study community services. I was extremely fortunate to receive the prestigious Endeavour Scholarship and found myself here doing what I always wanted – bringing community together through uplifting programs on the ground.
Tod: I started work in the building industry and was quite the workaholic when I was young. I bought my first house at 19 and by my late twenties I had built up a property portfolio, met a girl, and had a son. The relationship ended when my son was just one, and I went through a nervous breakdown.
I now call it a “breakthrough”, as it led me on a journey over the past 14 years of working on myself with a lot of therapy and personal growth courses. Through this work I discovered many of my childhood traumas. I now look at all my traumas as gifts of learning along my life journey and feel I can now relate to a lot more things on a deeper level, with a lot more awareness around emotional intelligence.
I can fully relate to how men think vulnerability is a weakness and expressing your feelings is hard, and my passion is to be involved in helping men to relate better to their suppressed feelings.
It is in this spirit that we set up our groups, to help people of all kinds connect better and be more fully engaged in community. What a great blessing it has been that Parul and I connected while studying at TAFE last year and really clicked together, and now our ideas have come to life.
What kind of programs do the groups run?
So far, we have been involved in many exciting projects and collaborations, working with a range of local and international organisations.
We run the Peace Education Program, a series of 10 workshops focused on participants discovering their inner peace and The Science of Happiness, a 10 week science-based program based on the positive effects of social connections, kindness, compassion, mindfulness, gratitude, awe etc.
We were one of the main organisers for this year’s Ref-YOU-gee Week and put together the Constance film screening and helped organise the Freedom Feast, which was massive. For Youth Week, we were involved in the Youth Homelessness Matters Day 2017, an educational and entertainment event aimed at challenging people’s stereotypes on youth homelessness.
At the moment there are also regular, free, guided meditations on the beach, or social bush-walks, kayaking days, celebration dinners etc. for our members to come together and connect.
What have been some of the highlights so far?
It has been one highlight after another. When we reached 100 members in less than six months, we knew our work was needed and we put together a massive dinner to celebrate, which was warm and touching.
Whatever the project, it is always people’s stories and the connections that develop that really stand out for us.
What are the future plans for the CCC groups?
The vision is big and we have a few projects in the pipeline, but we try and stay in the present as much as possible, taking things one step at a time. It’s part of the groups’ philosophy!
At the moment, we are trying to get different groups to work together to create a large-scale LGBTIQ+ festival, allowing us to celebrate our diversity.
We would also like to take the Peace Education Program, the Science of Happiness course and other uplifting projects to the local correctional facilities and refugee communities.
We’ve recently won some federal funding and should also be organising a fundraiser soon. You’ll definitely be seeing more of us, so keep an eye out!
How can people find out more and get involved?
People can log on to meetup.com and search for Coffs Connection & Community (CCC) and LGBTIQ Coffs Connection & Community or find us on Facebook.
There is no fee whatsoever to be a member, and we try to keep most of our events free by finding sponsorship, so everyone can participate.
We see our groups as belonging to the whole community, so become a member, come along to one of our gatherings, or create your own community event and we’ll support you in the process.
Thanks PJ & Tod.