After three decades at Centacare, inspiring courage and belief in others, Executive Deputy Director Pauline Connelly will retire on Friday and farewell the profession that has shaped her life.

It was in the family chook shed, in the late 1960s, that Pauline Connelly found her purpose.

Australia was waging a war on hunger and Pauline, then in primary school, felt compelled to help.

So, she started a club named after Robinson Crusoe, a fictional Englishman marooned alone on a tropical island for 28 years who finds peace against all odds.

‘’There was an old chook shed in our backyard which Dad said I could use; he gave me some paint, and I wrote on the front in big black letters, ‘The Crusoe Club’,’’ Pauline says.

‘’That little club was going to be the beginning. My sister, Beth, and I were going to go out onto the streets and help all the people who were suffering and alone like Robinson Crusoe.’’

From the club’s humble headquarters, long vacated by the hens, Pauline and Beth set about staging a backyard concert to float their dream of ending poverty.

‘’One of my friends did ballet lessons, so I got her to dance, and I sang. Some of the neighbours came and the Crusoe Club raised about two dollars for the Australian Freedom from Hunger Campaign,’’ Pauline recalls.

‘’That is my first real memory of social work. It just made sense to me because we grew up in an environment where you always put others first, and if you had something and they didn’t, you shared it.’’

Five decades later, Pauline this week will retire, having devoted her entire professional life to community services in support of ‘’the other’’ and 30 years to leadership roles at Centacare.

Her faith, fortitude, grace, and resolute belief in clients, regardless of the challenges they face, have defined her influence over time – at state, national and papal levels.

‘‘It is truly inspiring to see how people have the ability to withstand so much disadvantage and injustice when they are feeling so diminished, yet they are still trying, somehow, to be a good parent or a person when everything is going against them,’’ Pauline says.

‘’That’s why we want to help so much, to lift that burden a bit, because every day for so many people that burden just increases, and along with that, their sense of hopelessness.’’

It was through her own grit and determination that Pauline achieved her wish to become a social worker. After failing Year 12, when she chose singing in the school musical over study, Pauline turned to nursing.

‘’I thought it would be a bit like social work, but after the first few days of lectures, I was asking about who counsels the patients, so I left the degree and caught the bus home to Port Pirie,’’ she says.

To ease the burden on her parents, Pauline, one of six children, moved in with her grandmother and worked several jobs until she had saved enough money to repeat her final year.

‘’I got through with flying colours and started my social work degree and absolutely loved it; I drank it in,’’ she says.

Pauline recalls a group work camp where she not only learned that Elvis Presley had died (‘’we were all suitably shocked’’) but also the value of reflective practice and the use of self in supporting others.

‘’In this field, you really are a part of something so much bigger than yourself, but we must never underestimate our influence in the small moments,’’ she says.

‘’It is really that human level of one person’s response which can make a huge difference to the other person’s wellbeing.

‘’No matter how stressed or worried you are, when someone is at your door and wants to tell you something, your first response makes a huge difference to how the person feels in terms of being listened to and accepted, even if you don’t have a solution.’’

It is this quality for which Pauline hopes she will be best remembered when she enters retirement late Friday after giving three decades to Centacare – first in the Diocese of Port Pirie, where she established the agency in Whyalla with Bishop Eugene Hurley, and then in Adelaide.

‘’I look back and I just see all the different phases in my life, and the phases of Centacare, and how they are so intertwined,’’ Pauline says.

‘’Up until the last two years, I probably still felt like the new kid on the block from the Pirie Diocese. It’s a funny feeling, and a bit of a shock when you realise you’re the old girl at the organisation!’’

Pauline was managing Whyalla Counselling Service when she was recruited by Bishop Hurley in the mid-1990s to fulfill the ‘’pressing need’’ in the parish for a professional counsellor, “who would operate within the Catholic ethos”.

‘’Having operated for some time, within the parish, we applied to Centacare Australia for recognition of the work that Pauline was doing,’’ Bishop Hurley says.

‘’It was granted, and so began Centacare in the Port Pirie Diocese.

‘’We owe Pauline an incredible debt of gratitude for her generosity, faith, and her sheer dedication.’’

Pauline recalls writing the agency’s first submission – for a gambling rehabilitation program – and, in the following seven years, expanding to new sites in Ceduna, Port Lincoln, and Coober Pedy to meet emerging client needs.

Of Bishop Hurley’s influence, Pauline says: “He was and still is a very visionary man. Wherever he went in a parish, that parish was alive and dynamic, and if he set his mind to anything, it was done incredibly well.’’

Along the journey, Pauline wrote to introduce herself to Dale West, keen to glean whatever she could from his years of experience in social services.

‘’I remember my first departmental meeting with the funders and Dale was there as Director of Centacare in Adelaide,’’ she says.

‘’I must have been on my soap box about funding and Dale kicked me under the table so that I knew to shut up. It was the most important kick of my life!’’

Years later, Pauline joined Dale in Adelaide where she worked her way up as his long-serving deputy.

When Dale retired in 2021 after 32 years at the helm, Pauline guided Centacare through a period of notable change before choosing to return to her substantive position of Executive Deputy Director late last year.

‘’I learned so much from Dale about how to lead with compassion and common sense,’’ Pauline says.

‘’He taught me about the importance of being strong and confident in your own wisdom and standing your ground, which enables staff to feel safe around you.’’

Pauline says the satisfaction of helping Centacare grow into the organisation it is today, with more than 500 staff and 32 sites in metropolitan and regional South Australia, is tempered only by the loss of services along the way due to funding and policy changes.

‘’It’s quite amazing to look back and capture glimpses of the beginnings and then the end of programs; having to tell staff they don’t have jobs anymore and clients, who are getting amazing results, that they won’t have their workers anymore.

‘’To me, that’s one of the toughest challenges: being reliant on government policy of the day to influence the care you can give, and the restrictions that are placed on that care.’’

Pauline notes the media scrutiny placed on the child protection sector in recent years and laments the disconnect in society.

‘’We are definitely no better off,’’ she says. ‘’There is greater complexity in the noise of the world. At the same time, we have lost the ability to connect at the most basic levels as human beings, and that is even just to say hello when we cross each other in the street.

‘’There is a lack of obligation to the other. That’s what we witness generally, whether it’s in road rage, people rushing to clear supermarket shelves of toilet paper during Covid, and on social media where people’s mistakes are plastered all over for them to see again and again.

‘’We know, the commitment and the pressure and stress social workers experience. They choose this profession because of the other. They are salt of the earth people. They take huge risks with their own personal safety. They witness the most horrific things, knowing they can’t always make significant changes, but they stay there. And yet, when there is a mistake, when they are not listened to and something goes wrong, they become the ones to blame.

‘’I have immense admiration for those that keep going, because there are plenty that are leaving, and I don’t blame them, because it’s impossible to work like that under this spotlight of fear.

‘’We are doing a lot of research and specialist work around therapeutic approaches, but kids are still hungry, abused and cold, so we need both ends and the middle, but it can’t all be on the government.’’

A mother-of-four, Pauline is not sure what the immediate future holds beyond more time with family.

‘’I am praying for wisdom because I would like to find a place to continue to be a voice for change,’’ she says.