Harold Ritch, well known in Armidale for his advocacy for people in need, has taken on a new role with The Ascent Group – to develop the organisation’s many commercial ventures involving people with disabilities.
Tell us about your new role at The Ascent Group?
The Ascent Group (TAG) CEO Kevin Mead asked me to take on the role as Business Development Manager late last year. I see it as a really exciting challenge to provide a more sustainable business structure to engage people with disabilities in a greater range of work and other activities.
TAG already runs a number of successful enterprises for its supported workers, including office paper, cardboard and confidential recycling and confidential shredding, commercial printing and office cleaning.
We are just about to roll out domestic pick up of confidential documents, so personal information does not get into general refuse.
What are your plans for further ventures?
We are in the process of developing a car care centre, where we will be able to offer washing and detailing of vehicles at our Acacia Park headquarters. We are also planning a new café on site for our workers and visitors to the car care centre.
There are plans, too, to cater for an increasing demand for electronic archiving of documents.Many offices are required to save documents for extended periods of time by law and for tax purposes. We can offer physical storage now and are looking at electronic storage and document scanning in the near future.
There are also many opportunities for our workers around emerging markets with the green economy, including labour for quite a substantial number of projects. We are also looking at making timber products, including cubby houses, dog kennels, chicken coops and play equipment.
In what ways can you see the scenario for people with disabilities expanding through work and social engagement?
We have formed an advisory group of people from business, the professions and the community to meet regularly to formulate ideas for the future. I am very humbled by people who work in the sector. They are very, very special people and are always on the lookout for new ventures and opportunities. As someone who has worked in social welfare for 20 years, I am now seeing who the real champions in social welfare are.
Kevin Mead and the people who work in the disability sector are so dedicated to ensuring that clients have the best possible quality of life and opportunities. So many good new ideas about work that can be performed by people with disabilities have already been put forward through the process we have begun.
How has your career progressed so far?
I started with the Rural Bank of NSW as a teller and worked in Tumut and Macksville/Nambucca and then moved to head office in Sydney to the Training and Development Department. I left to spend two years with Qantas as a flight attendant and then ran my own wholesale and retail furniture business in Brisbane. During that time, I came to Armidale to visit my wife’s parents. We stayed, because we loved the city and its ambience.
I joined SkillShare as a trainer and that organisation grew into Jobs Australia, where I was CEO for five years. I represented the Employment Services Industry on the Board of the National Employment Services Association and as Convenor of the Rural, Remote and Indigenous Servicing Special Interest Group.
When I resigned from Jobs Australia, I worked with a number of Aboriginal organisations in western NSW, assisting with employment services, some health education with youth and some governance training with some organisations and their boards. I also worked as a business consultant and spent 12 months with New England Mutual as Community Investment Manager, before taking up the job with Ascent.
In all your experience in the social welfare sector, what do you regard as the most effective approach to assisting people?
When I started in the sector, I was working with homeless and disadvantaged youth in Armidale – and the rewards I got out of that work dictated my career in social welfare. In that job, we were able to put virtually 100 per cent of the young people onto a track that was totally different to the way they were heading.
We were able to impart to them the value of education, the values that we all uphold as members of the community, respect for other people and respect for the law and knowledge about health issues. I see many of these kids today in senior roles in businesses around Armidale. The secret was actually caring, taking on the role of parents in a lot of areas. The kids had missed out on the care and love and guidance they needed.
Our centre gave them somewhere to go every day, where they would be treated better. Some rebelled to start with, but stopped when they realised you were unconditional with what you were offering. They came back to participate. Once they had made decision to be there, we were in a position to help them turn their lives around.
What I came to realise was that what was troubling these kids and causing much of their rebellious behaviour was missing a loving and supportive family environment. They were actually looking for that and when it was provided, they were quite prepared to turn their lives around.
It is much less difficult than you might think once the kids have made up their minds that they want to participate. It was this experience that made me want to continue to work in the sector.
What have you learned about working with people with disabilities and those who care for them?
I am humbled by people who work in the sector, and I am learning a great deal from them and I have developed so much respect for the families and carers who are so proactive in supporting the work we do.
TAG has been a community based organisation since it was started in Armidale by a group of parents 55 years ago and operated as The Challenge Foundation. We really are a TAG team, with parents and carers, workers and people with disability all having the same aim: to make life better with wider scope and within the mainstream community. As for the supported workers themselves, I have developed an enormous admiration for their skill base and work ethic. Very few ever have a day off or sick leave.
They are very efficient and careful the way they drive trucks and forklifts and operate machinery. They are fantastically reliable and hardworking and could teach some of their peers in the mainstream a thing or two about a positive attitude to work and achieving results.
Tell us about your family and hobbies …
I am married with two daughters aged 12 and 14 at Duval High School. I continue with a passionate hobby I have followed since the age of 10 – collecting stamps. My dad was a collector, and he passed his interest on to me. Now I regard it as my personal therapy. I collect pre-decimal Australian stamps and have an online shop and do it as a sideline hobby. My kids are interested, but they don’t collect.
I love all sorts of sport. I used to play hockey, football, Australian Rules and basketball. I love spending time with my family, and we do a lot of things together. Renovating our new home is also keeping me occupied.