Meet the new Nowra Veteran Wellbeing Centre Manager Lesley Labka

The new manager of the Nowra Veteran Wellbeing Centre explains why addressing the diverse needs of veterans and their families is so important.

By Lachlan Haycock

The Nowra Veteran Wellbeing Centre, a purpose-built facility operated by RSL LifeCare Veteran Services with the support of RSL NSW, forms part of the broader network of Veterans’ and Families’ Hubs designed to connect veterans and their families with essential support and services.

The announcement of government funding for new Hubs in the Hawkesbury, Hunter, Queanbeyan and Tweed-North Coast regions means that the network is only set to expand.

The new Hubs enable RSL LifeCare Veteran Services and RSL NSW to further develop a hub-and-spoke model of delivery, developed in consultation with the local communities and other ex-service organisations, through the network of RSL sub-Branches.

These announcements come as the existing Riverina Veteran Wellbeing Centre has been awarded more than $520,000 from the Australian Government that will go towards refurbishment purposes. RSL LifeCare has also received funding to open a new Hub on the Central Coast.

In the below Q&A, Nowra Veteran Wellbeing Centre Manager Lesley Labka explains how her background in welfare and social work influenced her decision to join the RSL LifeCare team, and describes some of the social and employment services on offer at the centre.

You grew up in the Shoalhaven. How has your personal and professional background informed your approach to the Centre Manager role?

Labka: “That’s right, I’m a local girl! My background is in social work, welfare and charity business administration. Previously, I worked for two years as a Lifeline telephone counsellor.

“I’ve lived in the garrison town for most of my life, so I’m familiar with the challenges that veterans and their families experience, and these are consistent across communities. I’m thinking of areas such as welfare, the suicide rate, and the risks for veterans in the first year after they transition out of Defence.”

Does anyone in your family have a service history?

“My partner served for eight years in the Air Force, working for the Australian Signals Directorate. The veteran experience is varied – I don’t expect my experience will mean I automatically understand the experiences of other veterans or their family members.

“With the Centre Manager role, I was interested in working locally within my local community and having the opportunity to learn as much as I can; I'm bringing a beginner's open mindset.

“I want to be led by the needs and experiences of veterans and their families.”

The centre pays particular attention to engaging current members of Defence, doesn’t it?

“The purpose of the Nowra Veteran Wellbeing Centre is to support veterans in and after their service, as well as their families. Some of the ways in which serving members have used our centre include running meditation courses and visiting us to discuss claims. And we recently helped Open Arms run a Stepping Out workshop for serving members wondering if they are ready to transition out of the military.

“Many veterans and their families came along to a wellbeing day at the centre recently to find out more about the range of services available.”

What other activities does the centre offer?

“We're linked to the RSL Employment Program, which is delivered for RSL NSW by RSL LifeCare Veteran Services. Someone who has transitioned out of Defence, or someone who is thinking about doing so, might approach us asking how they can translate the experiences they had in the military into a new career opportunity after they leave.

“We ran a technology course in connection with the Shoalhaven Community College, as some of our veterans might struggle with using technology.

“Our staff attend ANZAC Day commemorations at local schools, and we held an Easter parade for more than 50 families and their children here at the centre.

“At the end of the day, my aim is to provide value and connection to people of different ages and backgrounds in the service space.”

How are the services you offer received by clients?

“We serviced a veteran who'd been seeing our Department of Veterans’ Affairs claims adviser. When we asked them how satisfied they were with the service, they said it was ‘fantastic’ and personally thanked the adviser who’d helped them.

“Someone else who comes in regularly is completing a TAFE course and uses the centre as a pop-in study location. She told me the other day how she had actually taken her family on a tour of the centre, because this place means so much to her.”

How would you summarise the role the centre plays?

“I believe in the power of choice for every veteran and their family members, so collaborating with other ex-service organisations is really important to provide variety and inform their decision-making.

“It’s important to make use of the resources that are available in the wider community – we’re in a regional area after all. We have a healthy working relationship with RSL sub-Branches, but there's always more opportunity to work together.

“I'm interested in hearing what ideas sub-Branches have about how we can work together.”

Support for all

With support from RSL NSW, RSL LifeCare Veteran Services is working hard to deliver its range of activities and services. These include the RSL Employment Program, the Spur Ranch Equine Program, the Homes for Heroes Program, and free career information sessions for veterans and their partners.

RSL LifeCare Veteran Services also organises fundraising events throughout the year to support its programs and services. On ANZAC Day, veterans and the public joined the team to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge for a special dawn service that raised $4,300, and the RSL LifeCare team also recently held its annual Remembrance Golf Day.

Supported by donations from RSL sub-Branches around NSW, RSL LifeCare Veteran Services can help connect you with the support and services you need.

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