John Mann has worked for The Ascent Group for almost 30 years and is one of Armidale’s great innovators. Through his fundraising ideas & by encouraging community support, he has advanced the cause of people with disabilities.
He tells us why he is still so keen to assist people with disabilities.
John, when did you first join The Ascent Group?
I first joined in 1983, when I was approached by the committee, chaired by Arthur Gates, to help the organisation regroup during a tough time. My job was to find new contracts for supported employees and develop new business opportunities.
With a bit of good luck and some helpful contacts, we won some lucrative contracts and have grown steadily ever since. We changed the name from ‘Rusden Enterprises’ to the ‘Challenge Foundation’ to mark this new era and later to ‘Challenge Armidale’.
Back then we employed around 25 people, including supported employees. Now, across The Ascent Group with its many enterprises and programs, there are 155 people employed. The reason I continue to work in the disability sector is because it’s very rewarding, enjoyable, productive, satisfying, has a happy atmosphere – and I get paid for it too.
Tell us about the Armidale Markets …
We contracted the Armidale Markets from Council when it was very small, with only about 8 to 10 stalls. I had the job as co-ordinator and saw it as a great initiative for Armidale and our organisation – and went about building it up. Over a period of 8 to 9 years, it grew to fill both Malls with 140 stalls. I also concentrated on getting the shops in the Mall involved, as there was some conflict initially. Once we explained our goals, they started opening up on the day.
One person who really helped me was Richard Torbay, just after he was elected to Council for the first time. Richard helped with a survey and put together a position paper for stall holders, retailers and the community. This resulted in great support from local papers and helped to resolve issues. With the support of Council, we put together a committee of market stall holders, who were very helpful with ideas to grow the markets.
People remember your famous snail races at the race course. How did that come about?
What happened was that we wanted another fundraiser for (then) ‘Challenge Armidale’. We tried all sorts of things. I thought of the snail races when I was with my mother, trying to clear them from a pathway at her house.
I contacted the media, and they had the time of their life with it. John Laws gave us a big plug on 2UE, as I think we were the first to come up with the idea. We were on the ABC and in the local papers. Amazingly, we got the races gazetted in Parliament, which meant people could legally bet on snail races! We knew we had something, because everyone supported it.
The snail races started as an annual event and ran at the Armidale Race Course for six years. Sue Cross teed up the Ginger Meggs cartoonist, James Kemsley, to draw the logo.
The races were on a Sunday; we’d have six races and raised quite a bit of money. Some people decorated their snails. Everyone was involved, and it was always the community supporting us. It was a fun day once a year.
What about the Recycling Depot?
It was one of our first enterprises. We had a baler at our headquarters in Acacia Park. When we wanted to expand, we contacted the cardboard recycling industry in Sydney, and they came up and offered us a bigger press and contracts.
Our Board, linked with Tidy Towns Committee, convinced Council that we should go into recycling for the whole city. We did the pick up around town using hessian and other bags. Council then bought the shed at the tip, and the community helped adapt it for recycling. Subsequently, Council built the new depot up there.
We kept the business of recycling office paper, plastic and cardboard: that’s ongoing at our Acacia Park premises. Armidale was supportive of recycling from our early start – it was driven by our organisation and Council. We went through the hardest time getting that seed to grow! Now it’s a multi-million dollar business.
What were some other highlights?
The New England Wool Bale fundraiser really involved a lot of people in the wool industry. Fine wool growers donated a couple of fine fleeces to use, and everything involved, from collecting, classing, transporting and selling the wool was donated – which resulted in a great benefit to the organisation.
I was also asked to project manage and build our day centre in Dumaresq St. Again, all of the community came on board with either cash or in-kind donations. It was wonderful. Armidale is like that.
What businesses now operate at Acacia Park?
There are three businesses: recycling of office paper, cardboard and commercial plastic wrap; confidential document shredding; as well as the commercial printing, packaging, mailing and small parts assembly division. We collate and package numeracy and literacy kits produced by UNE, which are distributed to schools all over Australia. We are happy to discuss new business with anyone (Ph 6774 8977).
What difference does it make for people with disabilities to have work?
We are no longer a ‘sheltered workshop’. We have an industrial award and everyone works under the award. No one is classed as a client; everyone is an employee.
They have real jobs and take it seriously. They do the work themselves, take on the responsibilities of the job and also train for more qualifications. They have the same rights and responsibilities and are part of the organisation, as are all employees.
What changes have you seen in attitudes to people with disabilities?
When appreciated and rewarded, people with disabilities achieve in their jobs the same as everyone else. They gain increased self awareness and understanding of way the world works and develop self esteem. I have always found people with disabilities are good employees, and now they know that doing the hard work has its rewards.
My job has evolved too, and I am now able to support their abilities to come through. The Ascent Group encourages all staff to take on further education and training. It’s good to work for an integrated, community focused organisation. Armidale is an amazing town for integrating people with disabilities and regarding them as part of the community.