From Karinya House’s first employee 20 years ago, to our Executive Director, Marie-Louise Corkhill has often been referred to as the heart of Karinya House.  You will immediately hear Marie-Louise dispute this, as she considers the women of Karinya to actually be at its heart. Marie-Louise is also often heard to speak of the Committee, Staff and Volunteer team that make Karinya work so well. Marie-Louise also often acknowledges the amazing founders of Karinya House, whose enacted vision is now a vital part of the Canberra Region’s support services for pregnant and early parenting women.

For two decades now, with Marie-Louise at the operational helm, Karinya House has offered vulnerable pregnant and parenting women of Canberra and the surrounding regions support and safe haven as they journey through life’s challenges, with their children by their side.  In recognition of the work of  Karinya House and Marie-Louise’s time at the helm, Marie-Louise was awarded 2017’s ACT Woman of the Year on International Women’s Day this year.

Reflecting on the incredible achievements of Karinya House, Marie-Louise remains committed to where the focus should lay. “I was incredibly humbled but very embarrassed about this”, as she pointed to the award hanging in her office. “It was just incredible to accept this award on behalf of the entire team but what it really said to me was ‘Karinya has arrived’ and is now recognised in the Canberra community for making such a difference to the lives of people.”

So how did this longstanding partnership between Marie-Louise and Karinya House begin? It all began when she saw an advertisement in the Canberra Times for a coordinator role for this new service called ‘Karinya House’.

“I probably looked at it because I wanted to do something specifically with women and children; I had been doing more general social work before that. Karinya was starting out and I thought I would prefer to be involved with something from scratch rather than something that was already established.”

Fortunately for Karinya House and the thousands of lives touched and changed by the services of Karinya, Marie-Louise did exactly that. Working from a kitchen table with a single chair, Marie-Louise began her journey with Karinya House.

Marie-Louise tells the story of how it all began over  20 years ago in the early 1990’s, when the original founding group, with the vision and energy of Margaret O’Donovan, who remains on the Committee today, raised $250,000 seed funding through car raffles and other fundraising events to establish the first Karinya House. With the seed funding raised through the generosity of many within our community, the first step toward getting to where we are today was made. Filled with second hand furniture, the three bed-room home, with attached flat (for staff) was leased from the ACT government, and Karinya House opened its doors in September 1997, with capacity for three residents.

“I lived there, in the attached bedsit for 3 months until Karinya House got established. I used to go off for the weekends. I ‘clocked in’ on Sunday afternoon and ‘clocked off’ on Friday afternoon (remaining on call throughout), and this roster was on repeat for quite some time.  The weekend casual relief , being the wonderful Judith Sykes at the time, was also critical to the Karinya operation model of 24/7 support, every day.

Together with the Committee and others, Marie-Louise considers it a privilege to have worked toward the expansion of Karinya House, passionately advocating throughout the seven year campaign, from 2009, to create a purpose-built facility designed specifically to support best practice and respectful  casework management for vulnerable and at risk pregnant and early parenting women.

Working at Karinya House is a role that is not for everyone. The work of Karinya House is beyond the many presumptions and generalisations that are made about pregnant and parenting women in crisis. And the provision of respectful service that recognises the learnings and wisdoms of every individual can be challenging and at times heartbreaking.  Here at Karinya, the staff and volunteers are all so passionate about women in crisis, and for all different reasons.

“I think I have come from a situation in my life where I have been greatly loved and blessed. I have been gifted with an amazing birth family, a very supportive husband, and lots of wonderful friends and people who love and care about me – and that has been the story of my life,” said Marie-Louise. “The women we work with often have no one, absolutely no one.”

“That is the reason I am still here today. If I didn’t have that motivating care and passion I would not be here.  I don’t know what it is; a great desire I suppose, to make a difference, or to actually be present in people’s lives and give back, because I have been given so much.”

As the Executive Director, Marie-Louise doesn’t stray far from the action here. “It is important to me, rather than completely focusing on all the high level demands, to have regular contact with the women we are supporting and also with our staff team and volunteers. I also deal with issues when they occur and tricky situations as they arise!”

Inevitably, the nature of the work here at Karinya means that it is a place filled with emotion. While Karinya House sees truly inspiring stories come out of these women, it also sees a lot of heart break and traumatic situations.

Marie-Louise says that she can juggle the constant exposure to the harsh realities of some of these situations by doing things she loves like listening to classical music, cooking, gardening and trying to keep fit!  Very grateful for having people to talk to and the support system she has, Marie-Louise thanks her Karinya team, dear family, friends and loving husband.

She also puts it down to her calm nature, “I am a very resilient person. I have had a lot of challenges here at times, as well as my fair share of personal challenges.”

Marie-Louise recognises that she is in no way alone in her efforts here at Karinya House. Karinya House would not and could not be where it is today without the amazing team of women (and some few good men) here, each doing their part to support women and their families in need.

“As the Executive Director here, I always say the most important job is to look after your staff and volunteers first – people always look at me when I say that but if we do not look after each other how can we look after the women and their children?”

So many women walk through our door, seeking an opportunity for a better life, for themselves and their child. They are inspiring and courageous women, often disenfranchised from the community.  They are women who make heroic choices for themselves and their child.  Karinya needs qualified, passionate and committed people to really help these inspiring women with life’s challenges and meeting their goals and potential.  That is what we strive to achieve – helping these women in the absolute best way that we can.

Marie-Louise, and the rest of the team here at Karinya House, have a great appreciation for the role the Canberra Community has played in the work we do. From community and corporate donors and friends to government, there is a range of valuable stakeholders here at Karinya – all of whom support Karinya’s women and children in different and incredible ways.  “It is essential for Karinya House, and for the women we support, that our community play their part.  Friends and Champions of Karinya, of the women of Karinya, are vital and they really do share our purpose of supporting vulnerable and at risk pregnant and parenting women in our local community.  This community support makes such a difference and reinforces the message to the women we support that they are valued.”