Despite being a personal style choice, Jenny Poon’s iconic electric blue hair is perhaps a metaphor for the Traralgon Neighbourhood Learning House, the organisation she will retire from leading after 28 years.
Eclectic and vibrant.
“Every neighbourhood house is quite unique because they respond only to their own communitys’ needs,” Jenny said.
“What is unique about the Traralgon Neighbourhood House? A lovely bright premises, a lovely atmosphere. People walk through the door and they think ‘oh, this is good, it’s got a good atmosphere. Very friendly and full of fun’.”
Jenny has intentionally fostered these qualities of warmth, welcome and inclusion over the years to help the community evolve and successfully face change.
“The first big trauma the community faced was the privatisation [of the power industry]. There were so many people who lost work at the same time and it was really, really horrendous,” she said.
“After privatisation we had over 600 people on the waiting list for computer courses. We had something like 22-24 computer classes a week for a long time.
“A lot of these people had lost their jobs [and] had to get resumes and needed a brush up on their literacy skills.
“It changed what the neighbourhood house was presenting to the community.”
Jenny’s focus on welcome and warmth over the years is perhaps largely thanks to the welcome she received at the beginning of her journey with the neighbourhood house.
“I moved to Traralgon from New South Wales and I had four children. I needed to do something for myself and I was reading the newspaper one day and there was an article about the neighbourhood house … I thought that was exactly what I needed.
“I went to the neighbourhood house and at first I actually walked past, I was a bit shy about going in.
“Another day, I went again and I went in this time and there were two lovely ladies sitting in the office and they made me feel comfortable and welcome.”
Jenny became increasingly involved in the neighbourhood house, joined the committee of management after six months and then applied for the co-coordinator position, was successful, and shared the role for first two years.
“We’ve grown from having a lone coordinator to now also employing an adult education officer, a receptionist, two project workers, a bookkeeper, a communications and marketing worker, three supervisors for the Work for the Dole projects and approximately 30 tutors,” she said.
“I think we are certainly doing our bit for employment within the Valley.”
Upon reflecting on highlights over the years, Jenny said it always came back to people.
“My highlights are always people, I love people I really do,” she said.
“For me, it is watching people come along to a course very nervous, very scared but then a few weeks later you see them relax, enjoy themselves and they get empowered and able to do the skills and go out and get jobs.
“When I think about all the highlights over the years, they all seem to be lowlights. Like privatisation was huge, the 2009 bushfires were huge. There was so much work and it was so beautiful to see the community rally around and round up the people who just help each other.”
“I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with such a vibrant community. So many changes have taken place over the almost 28 years I have been coordinator, but the one thing that stands out is the resilience of our community.”
Traralgon Neighbourhood Learning House tutor Maria Doganieri said Jenny would be missed but said the organisation would continue to grow because of her leadership.
“The reason the neighbourhood house has evolved to be such an eclectic, integrated, connected organisation that it is … is really because of her,” Ms Doganieri said.
“She’ll say ‘oh, that sounds like a good idea’ and then help that person shape whatever it is they’ve done,” she said.
“A lot of people see Jenny Poon as synonymous with the neighbourhood house because she has this can-do attitude.
“She will be missed but the testament to her is that while she will be missed, she has created such a vibrant organisation that there are plenty of people who want to keep that alive and going.”