Greg Knowles is the Communications Manager at Visionwest Community Trust and a member of Glen Eden Baptist Church.

Those of us who provide social support services count it as a given that we’re ready to leap into action whenever a crisis arises. There is no doubt such times have been all too prevalent over the past few years. The COVID pandemic, the 2023 storms in Auckland and further afield, and the rapid cost-of-living increases have all elicited emergency responses from churches and organisations throughout Aotearoa, New Zealand. These reactions have made an amazing difference in the lives of people experiencing tough times. At the same time, we need to note that these responses are often based on a series of one-off transactions rather than the development of the type of ongoing relationships that could lead to permanent life transformations.

Callum’s Story

Callum* admits to a checkered history; one characterised by gang affiliation, addiction, and crime. Eventually he found himself homeless and sleeping in an overgrown corner of a West Auckland park. Unsure of how to navigate the benefit system, he survived by shoplifting and making regular visits to local foodbanks where he became well-known. Each time he went for food support, the services he visited were both generous and caring, and he was incredibly grateful for the help provided. However, after each visit he would have to return alone to his park corner.

The day his life changed was the day a social worker stopped him in the street and asked if he needed help. The social worker quickly recognised that Callum’s greatest need was not food but warm, dry housing coupled with financial mentoring that would enable him to access the benefit support he was entitled to. The journey that followed wasn’t always easy and didn’t result in immediate change, but three years on, Callum credits that meeting and the subsequent support he received as providing the impetus to transform his life to the point where he now has a home, a job and is reunited with his wider whānau.

Most of us would agree that while it’s vital to help people in the immediate, our ultimate aim is to provide social support services that lead to life transformations like Callum’s; that is, support that moves whānau beyond their life’s challenges to a place where they live with confidence and mana and independent of a habitual reliance on support services.

What does it take?

For those of us working in the world of social support, arriving at this place means we must make a critical choice between two approaches to social support provision. Whether we’re a smaller local church or a large not-for-profit organisation, we must choose between providing transactional support or transformational support. While both approaches come from a spirit of caring and aim to alleviate immediate needs, it is the transformative power of the latter that makes it the model we should aim for.

While both approaches provide relief in emergencies, the focus of transformational social support services is to work towards catalysing long-term positive change. On the surface, this may not look too different from the important quick-fix services offered during a crisis, but it goes way deeper. It’s about walking alongside whānau and being proactive in building a relationship based on trust before sensitively delving into the root causes of the challenges that whānau face. As this unveiling is achieved, we can focus on nurturing personal growth and skill-building that will lead to sustainable well-being and empowerment.

Where transformational social support leads us

The phrase “transformational social support services” is self-defining. These are services provided in a way that leads to the transformation of individuals, whānau and entire communities. There are several benefits, as transformational support services offer a profound shift from addressing immediate needs (vital during times of crisis) to a proactive approach that catalyses long-term positive change. By fostering independence, resilience, and empowerment, transformational support services empower individuals to navigate challenges autonomously and thrive in the face of adversity. Moreover, transformational support services strengthen communities and promote collective well-being by cultivating a culture of collaboration and solidarity.

Ultimately, embracing the transformative power of social support is not just about addressing needs; it’s about building a resilient and empowered society for generations to come.

Wrapping it all up

The benefits of support services offered within a transformational approach are powerful enough to encourage us to reconsider how we deliver social support. Transformational support provides a profound shift from addressing immediate needs to providing a foundation for long-term positive change. It doesn’t dismiss transactional support entirely but recognises that, by supporting whānau to develop independence and resilience, transformational support services empower individuals to navigate challenges autonomously and thrive, even when facing challenges that might have previously tripped them up. Moreover, by cultivating a culture of relationship and collaboration, transformational support services strengthen entire communities because the transformative power of social support is not just about addressing the needs of individuals; it’s about building resilient and empowered communities and society for generations to come.


Photo by Julia Fisher, supplied by Visionwest.

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