THE Western Region Alcohol and Drug centre (WRAD) opened its rented Timor Street doors in 1986 with little more than three staff, a $170,000 budget and a vision.
Twenty-five years later, more than 65 people celebrated the reality of that vision with an anniversary gala dinner, a history book and an honour board.
Now in a purpose-built facility on Merri Street with more than 20 staff and just under $1.5 million at its disposal, WRAD is a pillar of hope in an ever-growing community.
Dawn Bermingham knows the centre’s journey better than most.
The office manager was receptionist at the Western Regional Association for Alcohol and Drug Dependence (WRAADD), as it was known 25 years ago.
“It started off as a drug and alcohol counselling service with three staff,” Mrs Bermingham said.
“Now it’s one of Warrnambool’s only bulk-billing medical practices.”
Mrs Bermingham said her passion for the job stemmed from developing her own skills and observing the influence WRAD had on its clients.
“It’s rewarding to see patients move on in their lives … to see them make changes,” she said.
“We develop programs to assist recovery from alcohol and drugs or any addictive behaviours for the benefit of the people.”
WRAD will always be a work in progress with the Warrnambool community, according to director of 11 years Geoff Soma.
“It’s been quite a lot of hard work,” he told The Standard. “Building up a sustainable medical practice has been a challenge.”
During its 25 years, the not-for-profit community organisation has expanded to offer a clinical practice, in addition to its counselling services.
“It keeps evolving to meet the needs of Warrnambool and the district,” clinical manager Daryl Fitzgibbon said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said there were numerous programs that came under the clinical banner but admissions often involved one of the “four Ls” — liver, lover, livelihood or law.
“Usually it’s one of these that makes people contemplate that they have an issue,” he said. “It’s when you realise the substance you once loved has gotten the better of you.”
WRAD achieves breakthroughs all the time but Mr Fitzgibbon said the region’s drinking and drug-taking culture was constantly changing.
“The variety (of substances) and greater population, combined with high (levels of) media selling the product plus pointing out the problems — there’s a conflict,” he said.
“Once upon a time people would go out to drink, now they drink to go out.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said WRAD’s recent adoption of a general health medical practice helped diminish the stigma attached to drug and alcohol centres.
“Some will see their GPs or seek counsel in friends or other services,” he said.
“(But) people can come here for their cold or flu.”
With one-on-one counselling and group therapy, WRAD’s services are designed to cater to each individual. Different options became more readily available with the addition of two doctors and a part-time general practitioner during the past decade.
Mr Soma said since WRAD began operating a bulk-billing medical practice, its range of services had also become more accessible.
“WRAD has become an important part of the Warrnambool community,” he said.
“It’s important to have a local response for people to go when they’re concerned about drugs and alcohol.
“But quite often alcohol and drugs are only part of the picture. It’s not just a case of getting them to give it up.”
The director said physcial, emotional and sometimes mental health issues played a role in patients’ ability to embrace WRAD’s services.
“There’s a long road to recovery for a lot of people,” he said. “We are a vehicle to process change.
“We give them the tools to overcome difficulties associated with addiction in a way which is … approachable.”
Mr Soma said alcohol continued to be the district’s most problematic drug, followed by cannabis, but WRAD staff had individual skills that different patients could respond to.
WRAD’s 25 years of achievements have been in spite of a constant battle for funding.
“We give them (patients) hope and a chance to overcome difficulties ... but the amount of money from the government is still not enough.”
Mr Soma said when WRAD’s change of direction to incorporate general health services was made public, the organisation received donations from local community groups and philanthropic trusts.
He said WRAD’s continuous gains outweighed any setbacks and “enriched” his and the lives of staff and patients.
“The sense of community and partnership in Warrnambool is fairly special,” Mr Soma said.
“It’s wonderful seeing the smiling faces of people who have previously been in great difficulty.”
Past and present staff and committee members celebrated the thousands of people who have crossed WRAD’s threshold since 1986 at the Lady Bay Resort on Saturday.