Our public health workforce – Meet the Healthy Cities Illawarra (NSW) team

Members of the Healthy Cities Illawarra team stand beside a car and banner featuring their group's name.

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA


Since the pandemic began more than 20 months ago, Australia’s public health workforce has experienced its toughest test in a century.

Our army of public health workers have pulled out all stops to save lives, and work against the odds to keep the nation as healthy as possible. They’ve adjusted to meet daily challenges as the pandemic lurched in one direction, and then another. There’s been precious little time for us to share our good news stories – your good news stories.

It’s felt like a public health ‘annus horribilis’ times two – and on steroids.

Hopefully, in the months ahead we’ll slowly emerge from this debilitating COVID-19 fog.

During this time, the PHAA is determined to play its part by sharing stories and acknowledging successes in whatever shape and form that long-awaited ‘new normal’ looks like.

In our weekly Pump newsletter, we’ve called for your stories and experiences. We want you to spend a few of your valuable minutes telling it like it is. Tell us about life as a member of Australia’s under-rated, under-funded, yet over-achieving public health workforce.

We hope this will be the first in a series of articles where those of you without the time or inclination to blow your own trumpet allow us to do it for you. Please keep your public health workforce story ideas coming. Contact details below this story.

Meet the Healthy Cities Illawarra team

The first to answer our call was Helen Tran, a Health Promotion Officer with Healthy Cities Illawarra based in Wollongong on the NSW South Coast. (Disclaimer: Purely by coincidence I’m writing this blog article locked down about one kilometre from Helen’s normal workplace. Lockdowns being what they are, much of Helen’s work these days is done from home.)

To Helen’s credit she wanted this article to be not about her but her team.

Healthy Cities Illawarra (HCI) has hardly skipped a beat delivering on its mandate to create healthy environments and enable healthy choices for the people of the Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions.

“Like so many working in the area of public health, we believe prevention is the best cure,” Helen said.

“We aim to address the underlying social, economic, and environmental causes of health inequity and are committed to taking action to prevent and control diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, asthma, dementia, depression and anxiety.”

The team comprises members from more than a dozen multicultural communities.

“We value the different perspectives each staff and volunteer brings to the organisation,” Helen said.

“The different ideas and ways we approach challenges is a result of the incredible diversity in our team.”

A passion for people and food

For Helen, food and helping others has always been a passion, and after finishing her degree in nutrition she’s living the dream, combining both in her current role.

“During COVID, and particularly during lockdown, food insecurity is one of our biggest challenges,’ Helen said.

“People get really stressed and anxious about where they’ll get their next meal and many are too embarrassed to seek help.”

In a collaborative partnership with local councils and services, Food Fairness Illawarra helped facilitate the delivery of hundreds of emergency food hampers and frozen meals in a COVID-safe way to hundreds of people each week.

The team consistently updates the local Low Cost and Free Meals Directory, which has become a valuable resource for community members who’ve found themselves food insecure..

With no regular face-to-face healthy cooking classes, the Cook Chill Chat team delivers online cooking classes through Zoom to about 30 people each week.

“Of those participating, 64% have indicated that they’ve felt lonely and isolated because of the lockdown restrictions,” Helen said.

“It’s as much about good company as it is about good cooking.”

Staying connected

While HCI’s walking group has been postponed during the long lockdown, the Healthy Cities Illawarra team has shown tremendous resourcefulness to stay connected with its community.

As the NSW lockdown edges towards its 80th day, kids being home schooled and unable to catch up with friends have been doing it particularly tough.

”Our Active In-Betweens and Playpod teams have created a series of videos keeping kids active and healthy at home,” Helen said.

“It’s all about having fun through things like competitions which encourage the kids to get involved and stay involved. So far we’ve had three challenges and created 11 videos reaching more than 300 youngsters who’re largely stuck at home with limited engagement with people of their own age.”

In lieu of face-to-face activities, the HCI’s Active Connections team are also online and will deliver a cultural capacity workshop.

“The workshop aims to provide volunteers and staff across many organisations with an understanding of the refugee experience and equip participants with a broad range of cultural capacity skills” Helen explained.

Created more than 30 years ago, Healthy Cities Illawarra is now part of an international movement initiated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1986. The WHO Western Pacific Region supported the development of the Alliance for Healthy Cities in 2003. Healthy Cities have spread rapidly across Europe and other parts of the world. In the Western Pacific Region there are over 130 city members, including Healthy Cities Illawarra.

 Share your story

In the public health world, everyone has a story worth sharing. Share yours with Jeremy Lasek in the PHAA team on lasekjeremy@gmail.com or call him on 0417 652 771.


Leave a Reply