CLC Profiles: Helen Constas
Helen Constas is the Chief Executive Officer of the Peninsula Community Legal Centre. She joined the centre in 1982 and became CEO in [ ]. Peninsula CLC has grown from a small local agency in Frankston to one of the major community organisations in the region, assisting around [ ] clients a year and with offices in Frankston, Frankston North, East Bentleigh, Cranbourne and Rosebud. Peninsula CLC won the Law Institute’s Legal Organisation of the Year Award for 2011.
How did you get involved in CLCs?
I first approached the Centre (then Frankston North Legal Service) as a university student in need of some legal advice following a car accident. I became a volunteer with the Centre, and then commenced employment in the role of Community Legal Education Worker, writing media articles and running self-help workshops (like the popular ‘Do-it-Yourself’ Divorce classes).
How have CLCs changed since 1982 when you started? What have been the good and the bad things about the changes?
Throughout my years working at Peninsula CLC, I have seen the sector become stronger and more sophisticated in terms of addressing barriers to justice, as well as providing high quality free legal services. I am pleased to see the pioneering spirit of CLCs still intact today, with bold test cases being run, fearless advocacy on law reform issues and innovative education and community development projects commonplace. Funding has always been an issue for CLCs, both then and now. It’s disappointing that even now, with a proven track record, CLCs still need to continually justify their work.
You’re a true Frankston local. How has your local community changed over the years and how has Peninsula CLC adapted to the changes?
I was born at Frankston Hospital and grew up in the Pines Estate (a housing commission estate, now Frankston North). I’m very proud of my background! Throughout my time at Peninsula CLC, our community has grown and diversified but the demand for free legal services has remained and even increased. Due to community need, and the fact that there are no other CLCs in the area, Peninsula CLC has expanded and now provides services to six local government areas.
Peninsula CLC has always prided itself on being able to respond to local issues in a timely way when they arise. Take for example the Brookland Greens gas leak in Cranbourne in 2008. Peninsula CLC assisted many residents in extreme distress who were uncertain about legal issues affecting them as a result of the gas leak. Peninsula CLC took the lead in organising a community meeting for residents and key stakeholders, enabling the provision of information on a large scale. More than 500 local residents attended the meeting that was organised just days after the crisis became known, to ensure that the information was made available to the community swiftly.
Peninsula CLC has always had a vibrant volunteer program and has played a role supporting other CLCs to run successful volunteer programs. How many volunteers do you have and what are the keys to success?
Peninsula CLC has an extensive volunteer program with over 120 volunteers including volunteer lawyers, paralegals and management committee. Our volunteers enable the Centre to offer eight extra legal advice sessions each week. Our program, whilst providing assistance to the community, also provides support for law students and newly admitted lawyers. The program encourages informal support networks and provides role models and mentors which are of great benefit for new lawyers and to the legal profession.
Peninsula CLC believes in valuing its volunteers and the contribution they make to the Centre and to the local community. We do this by promoting the role of volunteers through media releases to coincide with International Volunteer Day every year, we regularly nominate volunteers for awards to recognise their contribution, we hold volunteer functions and thank volunteers with cards and certificates.
Peninsula CLC worked with community legal centres across Australia to develop and rollout a training package for legal centre volunteers, ‘Valuing Volunteers’. This resource has been expanded and updated and is used by CLCs across Australia.
Peninsula CLC enjoys strong support from local government. Why should local government support CLCs?
We believe that local government has a responsibility to provide funding to CLCs as we provide much-needed free legal services to residents in all local municipalities, including advice and education in relation to matters concerning local government.
It has taken Peninsula CLC years and years to reach the point that we are at with our local councils and the key is lobbying, lobbying and more lobbying! We approach the local councils in our catchment for support and use statistics and case studies to demonstrate the level of need in the local community. We invite local councilors to come and see the work of the Centre first- hand and meet the staff. We then publicise these visits in our newsletter, on our website, in the local papers and in council newsletters.
We are active participants in our local communities through involvement in local projects and steering committees and we have worked very hard over the years to become one of the key stakeholders in our catchment area.
You lead a successful organisation that has grown substantially from its humble beginnings. Do you have any tips for CLC managers and management committees?
I cannot emphasise how important planning and goal setting is for CLCs. At Peninsula CLC, we take the time to plan strategically on a short-term as well as long-term basis. This has enabled us to work towards opening new branch offices, offering specialist programs and employing new staff. We value our staff, volunteers and committee of management and we work very hard on our community partnerships. We keep track of community need and we keep knocking on doors…..and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer!!
Congratulations on reaching 29 years in CLCs! What’s kept the fire burning over that time?
Thank you! Social justice and providing services to my local community is my passion and that’s what keeps me coming to work every day. I work with a dedicated team of staff, volunteers and management as well as colleagues across the sector (both past and present) who share the same desire for change that I do. We are all privileged to work in a sector that actively opens doors to justice whilst trying to make society a fairer place to live.