Proud Bardi Jawi and Nyul Nyul woman Nellie Binmaarus is keeping mob connected during Victoria’s lockdown through weekly food drops, health check-ins and socially distanced yarns.

Binmaarus is the team leader of CoHealth’s Billabong program, which usually provides weekly catch ups for local Indigenous Victorians in inner Melbourne to share community news, eat breakfast and receive free health checks.

Due to lockdown restrictions, the Billabong community have not gathered since March. Adapting to the times, Binmaarus decided to maintain community connection by visiting her clients’ homes every Tuesday.

“Home visits are about making sure I am still there for the community, making sure that I can communicate health information … and provide for them,” said Binmaarus.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables usually come down to Billabong with me. So, I thought I’ll just pack them up into cooler bags and deliver them instead,” said Binmaarus.

Binmaarus also keeps program participants connected by sharing news across the community.

“Some of the Aunties and Uncles are asking, ‘How’s this person doing, how’s that person doing?’ And I let them know I just saw them yesterday and it helps them feel more comfortable,” said Binmaarus.

Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Christine Charles has been part of the Billabong program for more than a decade. Ms Charles doesn’t use her phone often and said Tuesday visits from Binmaarus are her main source of news.

“Nellie is like my message stick. She tells me how everyone is doing. She brings groceries and face masks and tells me how to stay healthy.”

“Not everyone uses the internet, so it’s better to get information by word of mouth,” said Ms Charles.

Binmaarus said sitting down and having one-on-one yarns with Billabong participants is one of the most important parts of home visits.

“Some of my clients can’t read so when there are new restrictions, I make sure to call them up and let them know,” she said.

“Some of these people also don’t have family to drop in and literally just check on them.

“The most important thing is to sit there and listen to them to make them feel good. Everyone needs to be heard during hard times.”

Nellie Binmaarus and Aunty Christine Charles. Photo by Margaret Paul, ABC News.

Binmaarus also prints brochures containing up-to-date health information, including when and where to get tested for COVID-19 and which services to reach out to. She said her knowledge of the Billabong clients helps her tailor the information for each visit.

“Some of my clients have a range of medical conditions. So, by considering each person as an individual and providing specific services or writing down their appointments, we can help them get through this pandemic,” said Binmaarus.


Low COVID-19 rates in community

According to the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), there are currently five active cases of the virus among Indigenous Victorians, with 65 people having recovered.

CoHealth Chief Executive, Nicole Bartholomeusz, said these low numbers can be attributed to the work of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) and culturally specific health programs like Billabong.

“Community health organisations reach people who might otherwise not engage with mainstream health services,” said Bartholomeusz.

“The success of Billabong can be put down to years of relationship-building, the expertise of Aboriginal health workers like Nellie, and an ongoing focus on culturally safe practices.”

Binmaarus said she is proud of her Billabong clients who have stayed clear of the virus and hopes the recent low rates in Victoria means they will be able to gather by the end of the year.

“I would love to sit down and have Christmas with everyone. I really look forward to that,” she said.

By Grace Crivellaro