2022 Annual Report
This year has not been without challenges, but as always, our team has met them with great courage and determination. We have continued to provide our clients with the highest standard of support possible while supporting our community to become inclusive.
Acknowledgement of Country
Our Vision & Mission
CEO & President Messages
Our Board & Leadership Group
Acknowledgement of Country
Early Links acknowledges, respects and thanks the Wonaruah nation and all other nations as caretakers of the land and sea on which we live and work. We pay our respects to all elders, past, present and emerging and to leaders from all countries.
Original artwork by Guringai woman Sue Shilcock.
Support our community to become inclusive, through collaboration, education and service delivery excellence.
A message from our CEO
Chief Executive Officer
The year has been brutal for our community, staff, and the families we serve. With lockdowns and restrictions disrupting life, wellbeing, connections and children’s education, many in our community will need extra support in the years to come to help them to get back on track.
We have the skills, knowledge, experience and dedication to invest in the communities that we serve.
Whilst we have been challenged and frustrated, we were at the same time empowered to rise and strive to do even more for our community. We continued our mission of providing high quality support to individuals, families and children through multiple new programs whilst raising awareness of the importance of inclusive practices. We championed evidence-based supports and advocated for increased equity in funding and access to it.
I am confident in saying that the past financial year was tumultuous for organisations everywhere.
Ours was certainly no exception. The past year was particularly challenging for our organisation as income streams were unilaterally affected. Together with our clients, we faced the ongoing pandemic, floods, staff change fatigue, and the continuing evolution of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) operating under a government mandate to reduce expenditure, workforce shortages, increasing compliance obligations, and financial pressures. We welcomed the government’s financial support scheme, Jobsaver, but also felt the impact of a scheme not designed well for our sector. The cumulative impact of those factors outside our circle of influence has disrupted our “business as usual” and, while challenging our ability to plan, really pushed our need to innovate and create change to the fore.
A challenge provides an opportunity for us to pause and reflect. How do we learn from and rebuild after this challenging period? We have the skills, knowledge, experience and dedication to invest in the communities that we serve. This vast and remarkable treasure, the passionate heart of Early Links, our staff, is ready and able to do things differently. The new government’s stated position of a return to the original intent of the NDIS will hopefully herald more predictability and stability for participants of the scheme and providers. It will enable us to work with our clients to align our service with their needs better. Our communities need us to recognise their new challenges and respond accordingly. Our strategic plan had already plotted such a course for us, permitting us to be bold in our pursuit of quality and innovation. The timing is right with our new understanding and a refreshed political agenda. We are poised to break new ground and go further for our clients.
Over the last few years, we have built an organisational structure recognising that, as a growing organisation, we needed the right infrastructure to ensure our foundations were strong. This investment in both our infrastructure and staff structure is reflected in our financial position. Just as the bones provide the structure and support for the muscles to work effectively, a strong support staff team is required for our wonderful frontline teams to work efficiently and effectively. And so, with wisdom from our Committee to guide us, we created a structure that laid the foundations that we are now building on so that we can continue to achieve our mission. Our new structure is still in the settling stage but will allow us to move forward in a way that recognises the vast opportunities that lie at our feet.
We will continue to embrace new opportunities to strengthen our position in our communities.
Early Links has been fortunate to be chosen as a workplace by so many talented staff who thrive in an environment where their energy and passion complement our mission. This fact was recognised when we were recently awarded the Work Integrated Learning Hall of Fame Award in the University of Newcastle 2022 Employability Excellence Awards. Early Links have leaders across all areas of our business that bravely encourage hard conversations, lead with courage and ask their teams to share the whole story, not just the good parts. Because of this team, we will continue to embrace new opportunities to strengthen our position in our communities and deliver the social impact we strive for in the future.
I would like to acknowledge the continued support and commitment of the 200 incredibly talented and dedicated staff, all of whom make a difference in the lives of people living with disability and their families. I am incredibly proud of their resilience and flexibility during these unprecedented times. We are also grateful to our clients for their unwavering support over the past year.
Finally, I would like to thank all members of our Committee who have been so generous and steadfast in giving their time and expertise to lead the stewardship of our organisation.
A message from our President
Welcome to all of you who are joining us to celebrate another year for Early Links and the incredible impact our services make. Early Links has a long history of supporting children and young people in our community, extending to clients of all ages over the last few years as the need became more and more apparent. This inclusive ‘wrap around’ service is just one of the things that allows us to fulfil our mission to support our community to become inclusive through collaboration, education and service delivery excellence.
Building relationships and connections, making dreams reality.
The demand for our services has continued to grow across Maitland, Cessnock and the Upper Hunter Regions such as Singleton, Muswellbrook and Dungog. It is vital that these outer regions also have access to opportunities and quality supports, and our regional offices and community connections have continued to make this possible. Early Links continues to advocate for all NDIS participants, to walk alongside them and their families as they navigate the NDIS process and seek the best possible outcomes within their plans and delivery of supports.
None of this would be possible without the incredible team effort of all the employees of Early Links, who share in the vision of inclusion and opportunity, placing the well-being of clients at the forefront. Who have continued to be adaptable and responsive, to take on new challenges and are the everyday face of Early Links. Building relationships and connections, making dreams reality.
I look forward to a year we can say Covid did not impact our operations, but 2021/22 saw the impacts continue to be felt as we navigated the challenges it brought. Again, the resilience of our management and employees and the lessons previously learnt held us firm. As we step forward into whatever the pandemic brings next, I want to acknowledge that it is not always easy and that it adds to the complexities of roles and impacts on well-being. Know that you are valued and acknowledged. Thank you for all you do.
Know that you are valued and acknowledged. Thank you for all you do.
I want to thank our CEO, Sue, again for her incredible contribution and leadership of Early Links, for her courage and dedication. Her unwavering commitment to the rights and needs of all of our clients and her ability to see multiple perspectives and possibilities.
I also thank our very dedicated and capable leadership group, who bring their strengths and wisdom to our organisation. Quality and continuous improvement are only possible with a management team with the skills and knowledge to be able to see gaps and to be able to work collaboratively to find the best solutions.
To the Management Committee members, I also extend thanks for their time and expertise in their area, which enriches and guides the management of Early Links. As volunteers, they are also driven by the desire to support all members of our community, to promote inclusion and ensure everyone is valued and heard. It has been a privilege to share this journey with you all.
Our Board brings together industry, business and community leaders who generously donate their time and passion to provide the governance needed to lead Early Links into a strong future. We greatly value their willingness to share their wisdom for the betterment of our communities.
Our Leadership Group
After a period of rapid growth and change across the organisation, we have settled into a leadership structure that allows us to tackle new challenges confidently. Our Leadership Group has a mandate for excellence in all aspects of our offerings and is committed to bringing out the very best in our teams.
Chief Executive Officer
Chief Operating Officer
Capacity Building Manager
Marketing & Communication Manager
Therapy Services Manager
People & Culture Manager
NDIS Quality and Safeguards Officer
Sector Capacity Building Program
Teens and Adults
Although initially founded to provide early intervention services, Early Links has evolved to continue providing therapy and support services to clients as they become teenagers and reach adulthood. This year we’ve expanded our support services to accommodate teens and young adults better and developed community groups to meet their needs.
This space will continue to be an area of growth for Early Links.
We run various groups designed specifically for teens and young adults, including Life Skills, Fun Factory, Job Readiness, Yoga, and Cooking. Activities are selected according to the goals and preferences of clients in the groups and can include planning and preparing meals, arts and crafts, games, job readiness workshops, developing life skills, excursions, sports, and so much more. We will also introduce some new groups in 2023, such as Strictly Social, a group for young adults that focuses on socialising with peers in the community.
This space will continue to be an area of growth for Early Links. We introduced a dedicated youth group team to the organisation this year and have many plans for new groups and supports in 2023. Watch this space!
This year we saw the return of some favourite groups and some new additions. Making their returns were the Maitland Playgroup and MyTime at Muswellbrook, Fun Factory, Dance Group, Let’s Get Cooking, and the new and improved Yoga Group, now called Kid Gym. We also introduced some new groups this year that were instant hits.
Block Builders, a Lego-based workshop to build social and communication skills, was popular and ran each term and school holidays. Catering to our teenage and young adult clients, this year, we introduced the Job Readiness and Life Skills groups to help with the transition into adulthood. Craft Group was introduced in the July school holidays but was unfortunately disrupted by the flooding in Maitland. We hope to run these groups again before long.
Sector Capacity Building Program
This year Early Links, in partnership with Firstchance and Hunter Prelude, formed a consortium to tender for the Sector Capacity Building (SCB) Program through the Department of Education. The SCB program aims to train and support staff in all community-based preschools in NSW. The program helps to support inclusive practices and build staff capacity to support children with additional needs within their centres. In previous years, Early Links has been responsible for providing supports to 21 local preschools. The consortium is now supporting 225 preschools across three regional areas in NSW.
Each partner in the consortium has engaged external providers to assist with the program delivery. Early Links is working in partnership with Early Connections Manning River/Great Lakes and Pedal Early Intervention. Firstchance is working in partnership with Early Connections Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, and Jumbunna. Hunter Prelude is working in partnership with Shaping Outcomes, Moree Early Intervention and Early Connections Kempsey.
The consortium is now supporting 225 preschools across three regional areas in NSW.
We employed three new teachers and now have a team of seven staff working to implement the program. Our amazing team supports preschools in the Maitland LGA, Gunnedah/Tamworth LGA, Inverell and Glenn Innes LGA, and Lismore LGA. Despite natural disasters, including droughts and flooding rains, the team has pushed on and developed genuine and trusting relationships with each of the services. We are making a real difference in areas that are desperately seeking support.
This program has continually evolved over the last couple of months, and the team have rallied together to support each other. They’ve developed a beautiful, cohesive team ensuring the successful delivery of the program.
Client Feedback Survey
In June, we surveyed our clients and their families as we look to achieve continuous improvement in the services and support we deliver. We received some fantastic feedback about our team and services. Of those surveyed:
would recommend Early Links to others.
found Early Links to be flexible and responsive in supporting them.
said Early Links actively involves their family, advocate(s) or guardian(s).
said their Early Links team has high levels of skills and expertise.
feel comfortable approaching Early Links staff to provide feedback.
"Fantastic team who support our family"
"The convenience of a "one-stop-shop" for all our support needs"
"So happy with the people who support us."
"Thank you for supporting my family for six years!!!!"
"Love the work you do."
"Very easy to deal with and fantastic assistance to navigate the NDIS minefield."
"Staff are respectful and caring, often going above and beyond to check in with participants/families."
"The care that is given to my daughter, the fact that Early Links are always checking to see if we are happy."
In July 2021, we launched our first fundraising appeal, the Big Yellow Bus appeal, to raise funds to renovate the Big Yellow Bus. The bus is well-loved by the community but was showing signs of wear and tear, and so was the logical choice for our first appeal. Through a combination of sponsorship and donations, we raised over $18,000. We can’t wait to see the bus hit the road with brand-new signage soon.
Our Maitland and Muswellbrook playgroups have been a staple in the community for years now, and the support they provide has helped countless families in the Hunter. While we receive some funding for these programs, it does not cover the total cost of running them.
To address this, in July this year, we launched our Playgroups appeal to raise $30,000 to allow more therapists to attend our playgroups and provide support to the families there. As part of the appeal, we hosted our first-ever Early Links Trivia Night in September to raise funds for this appeal and successfully raised over $8000. So far, we’ve raised over $23,000 towards the appeal, and with six months to go, we’re confident of exceeding our target.
Community and Funding Partners
We thank our funding partners for their continued support and the generous funding bodies and sponsors of some of our special projects. This year we were supported by: Aboriginal Affairs NSW, APA – Kurri Kurri Lateral Pipeline, Australian Government, Community Grants Hub, Carers NSW, Cessnock City Council, Department of Business (Australian Government), Department of Industry, Science, Energy & Resources (Australian Government), Department of Regional NSW, Department of Social Services (Australian Government), Glencore, Glencore Ravensworth, Hunter Homes, Hunter Legal and Conveyancing, Hunter ReadyMixed Concrete, Hunter Valley Operations, Imperial Hotel Maitland, Maitland City Council, Mazda, Muswellbrook Shire Council, NAB Foundation, NSW Department of Communities & Justice, NSW Department of Education, NSW Department of Education – Australian Early Development Census, Orica, Primary Health Network, Snowy Hydro Hunter Power Project, Stockland, The Mutual Bank, Tsubaki, Whitehaven Coal, Your Discount Chemist.
In Your Words
“We love playgroup”
“Thank you for continually supporting us to publish books by and for remote Indigenous Communities 💙”
“Congratulations and well done to everyone who makes up the Early Links team!”
“We cannot thank Mike enough for everything he has done for us! He is an absolutely amazing person.”
“We value all you have done”
“Nate has had a huge impact on our lives!”
“My daughter still talks about you sometimes! You definitely leave an impact on young people 😊❤”
“Perfect role model for younger generations”
“We have been fortunate to have Annette in our home, and she is a wonderful person and asset to the Early links team. A great role model.”
“Joel is the most amazing person when we come to playgroup. He makes sure all the kids are safe and have fun no matter how little they are.”
“Well done, Team Early Links”
This year, we’ve been lucky enough to be recognised for the work we do through multiple award nominations.
At the Hunter Diversity and Inclusion Collective Golden Pineapple Awards in June of this year, we were awarded the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Employer of Choice award, and our CEO Sue French was awarded the Outstanding Leadership Award. It was an absolute privilege to be recognised for our ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Continuing this streak, we were named finalists in the Employer of Choice and Outstanding Community Enterprise categories at the prestigious 2022 Hunter Business Awards. We did not triumph on this occasion, but it was still an honour to share the spotlight with fantastic businesses that make invaluable contributions to our region.
Most recently, we were awarded the Work Integrated Learning Hall of Fame Award from the University of Newcastle (UoN), recognising the support and opportunities we offer UoN students. This includes placement programs, Allied Health Assistant roles, and graduate employment opportunities.
We have organised and attended numerous events this year to connect with our community, build valuable relationships and raise awareness of our supports and services. These events included:
International Day for People with Disability (Dec 21)
Maitland Pickers vs Newcastle Knights Pre-season Game (Feb 22)
Maitland Small Business Summit (Mar 22)
Muswellbrook High School Expo (Apr 22)
Hunter Jobs Fair (Apr 22)
Hunter Disability Expo (May 22)
Maitland Rugby Club Family Fun Day (Jun 22)
Early Links 2022 Trivia Night (Sep 22)
Barkuma NAIDOC Family Fun Day (Sep 22)
University of Newcastle Allied Health Employment Expo (Oct 22)
Early Links Family Picnic (Nov 22)
Commonwealth Child Safe Framework Statement of Compliance
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse highlighted the need for organisations to adopt child safe practices including appropriate screening of staff, mandatory reporting and adoption of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. In addition to ensuring child safety within Commonwealth entities, the Australian Government will work together with its funded organisations to do all it can to ensure the safety of children that staff may come in contact with in the context of their work and activities.
Early Links Team Members
Management & Administration
Allied Health Assistants
Early Intervention Specialist Teachers
Psychologists & Prov. Psychologists
Creative Art/Music Therapists
Behaviour Support Practitioners
NDIS Support Coordination
Our Coordinator of Supports (CoS) Team has ten members, supporting 269 participants with CoS funding totalling $1,163,401.00! The CoS support area covers the Central Coast, Newcastle, Raymond Terrace, Port Stephens, Cessnock, Kurri Kurri, Maitland, Singleton, Muswellbrook, and Scone.
At our recent staff day, our CoS team gave an update on how the team helps clients to access the NDIS funding they need by reframing circumstances into ones that the NDIS understands. Knowing how to frame participants’ support needs in “NDIS speak” assists them in obtaining plans that better reflect their support needs.
In August, some of the team participated in a weeklong training program from Disability Services Consulting (DSC). This organisation follows NDIS review changes and offers training in all things NDIS so our team can continue to provide service delivery excellence.
Our Support Worker Team has continued to grow, and we’re excited to see our new team members supporting clients in different ways to achieve their goals. We are always looking to expand our Support Worker Team and are happy to receive resumes of friends or family members willing to make a difference in someone else’s life by becoming a support worker.
Over the coming months, we will be upskilling our Support Workers in a variety of fields. This is an exciting development as it will allow them to support our clients in many different ways. Our first focus for training will be on medication safety, providing our support workers with the essential knowledge to safely and effectively assist clients with medications and manage medication contingencies while on support.
Professional Support Program
In 2021 we introduced a program to support new graduates joining Early Links. Every Thursday, graduates met with experienced staff for two hours and viewed a presentation on a topic, such as how to work in the field, develop clinical skills, and learn where (or who) to go to for more information. Staff across the organisation with the knowledge and skills to share were called in to present, with over thirty topics covered throughout the year. The program is incredibly beneficial in developing skills and helping new graduates feel welcomed and supported.
We soon realised that the program would also benefit other staff members and new graduates, so the Professional Support Program was born. In 2022 we varied the program structure to be in-person and online, with the added benefit of recording the sessions for those who couldn’t attend.
The University of Newcastle recently awarded us the Work Integrated Learning Hall of Fame Award. The award recognises an organisation’s contribution to the professional preparation of students, and we’re thrilled to be celebrated for the support we offer our staff.
All Staff Meetings
In July and October, we held our quarterly staff days, and we were finally happy to meet face-to-face again. Our team came together from all four of our offices in Maitland, Ashtonfield, Kurri Kurri and Muswellbrook. These days are a fantastic opportunity for our team to catch up, meet new colleagues and learn together.
Presentations cover a wide range of topics, including quality and compliance, information technology, people and culture, risk management, incidents and hazards, the role of specific teams, staff survey results and planning.
An essential component of our future planning is accessing the wisdom of our team, so we invite their honest feedback through staff surveys and at all staff meeting days. This allowed us to design strategic projects focusing on financial diversification, reward and recognition, office amenities, internal communication, software solutions, new starter experience and health and well-being. We believe these projects will result in our team being best supported to fulfil their roles and support our clients. In doing so, Early Links will be equipped to meet future challenges, seize opportunity when it arises and thrive.
Quality and Continuous Improvement
In December 2021, the newly established position of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Officer was filled, and it was all systems go for everything quality and continuous improvement. The year’s focus has primarily been on preparing for the NDIS audit, and continued registration, with the Stage 2 audit in November and Global-Mark selected as our auditors.
A quality service that thrives on continuous improvement
In support of our commitment to providing a quality service, 2022 has seen a review process undertaken on policies and procedures to simplify and consolidate. Consultations have commenced with Early Link teams to create more user-friendly processes, and feedback about our service was obtained from clients and staff. As the year’s end fast approaches, 2023 will commence with a strong focus on continuing to build a quality service that thrives on continuous improvement opportunities.