Twenty-one years ago, a man saw a great need for more education-based services for people from refugee and migrant backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He could see how to make people more welcome, and with decades of teaching experience, he knew how to help people bridge the gap from being “a new arrival” in Australia to becoming a contributing member of society.
I write of Steve Bowman, the retiring director of the Edmund Rice Centre, in Western Australia. I am privileged to serve on the board of this “grass roots”, community, not for profit organisation that continues to make a difference in thousands of lives.
I first became aware of Edmund Rice when I was writing More to the story – conversations with refugees. As I was starting to research and learn more about the community service groups that helped refugees, so many people said to me: “you must go and talk to Steve at Edmund Rice; they do great work.” They were right. I walked in the door to do an interview and have stayed involved ever since.
You can find more information about the Centre and the valuable services it provides at www.ercwa.org.au. For this post however, I want to focus on Steve and the power of his vision.
A former Christian Brother, Steve worked throughout Western Australia including significant time in the Pilbara and Kimberley where he found joy in teaching people from a different culture to his own. He also spent time travelling, studying and volunteering with different organisations in Sydney, Ireland and the United States. He describes this time as one of spiritual richness and reflection.
On his return to Perth with a determination that has become his trademark, and with the support of the Christian Brothers, he opened the doors to a building in Perth’s northern suburbs that would become the Edmund Rice Centre WA.
Steve was inspired by the life and vision of Edmund Rice, the Irish businessman who more than 200 years ago responded to the needs on his doorstep by dedicating his life and resources to the liberation of the poor through education. Along with volunteer teachers and helpers Betty and Alan O’Neil, Pat Chinnery, Sue Catling, Mary Britton, Matt Lobo and Brothers Geoff Seaman, Peter Thrupp and Phil O’Loghlen, they taught English, computer, skills and art and craft classes to newly arrived refugees.
In the process, they created what Steve called “common ground” where people of all faiths, cultures and backgrounds could come together and learn. Clients over the years have described the Centre as “their family” and “a place where they belong.”
From three classes a week with 24 people 21 years ago, the Edmund Rice Centre now welcomes over 75 people a day to over 1,000 classes of English per year. Hundreds more take part in other community classes and thousands of young people participate in sport, arts and youth leadership programs.
Steve became a leader in the sector and the wider community, as he built an organisation with an unprecedented reputation for providing quality service to some of the most marginalised people in the community.
At his recent farewell morning tea, one of the many people who asked to speak said “One of the many things I learnt from Steve has been the need to be present, the need to listen and the need to be compassionate.”
Steve Bowman inspires me and reminds me often that if everyone took just a little time to contribute to their communities in some way, we would make the world a better place.