Carol Sparks’ first action as mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council was to open the doors of the Town Hall to the community.
“I’m taking appointments with any and all residents who want to put their concerns,” she said.
"Anybody who wishes to can ask at the council office to see my appointments diary, which they will find is packed solid with community meetings, to hear from residents and rate-payers!"
Just over a month into her office, the town’s first Green and first lady mayor is working hard to reduce worryingly high levels of domestic violence, and help youth.
Last week, Cr Sparks attended a country mayors’ meeting in Sydney, where she discussed the urgent need to recruit more doctors, as well as converting plastic waste into energy.
“I’m for social justice and the environment,” she said, “and I am concerned about climate change and the effect it has on our lands.”
But, Cr Sparks explained, while she’s a Green, she’s not a party politician. As a councillor, she swore an oath to put the community first.
“It’s not unusual to have people in council say what party they belong to,” she said.
“It’s an unusual thing for Glen Innes, as is being a woman mayor!”
Domestic violence is everyone’s concern
Cr Sparks wants women to step up and become decision makers. She’s also listening to and acting for women’s concerns – especially domestic violence.
Glen Innes had the state’s third highest figures in 2016, dropping to tenth in NSW last year.
As a nurse, Cr Sparks has seen plenty of victims of domestic violence – and she’s determined to bring those figures down.
She’s a member of the Safe in Our Town Committee, which makes the community more aware of issues involved with domestic violence.
Recently, she walked in the Reclaim the Night march, a movement by women for women to protect their safety in the street.
"I encourage women to call out when they feel that they're being abused, or that there's discrimination involved, or that there's behaviour that's not acceptable nowadays in 2018 – to call it out."
She also urges people who feel threatened or abused – or who may have seen something unusual, or heard something they’re not happy about – to speak to police inspector Matt Hemsworth.
The police station’s number is 6732 9799.
Cr Sparks is also concerned about problems facing youths: high levels of youth suicide, school bullying, alcohol and drug abuse (including ice / crystal meth), and violence.
''It's not the kids, so much as their parents, perhaps, or their friends, that cause them to feel alienated in their social scene and their community,” Cr Sparks said. “It makes people upset and angry.”
Her big project for Glen Innes youth is to turn the former shire council / RFS building at 181 Bourke Street into a Youth Art and Cultural Centre.
“Statistics are that youth suicide and other problems in town – including crime – have decreased once they have a youth centre,” she said, pointing to Narrabri and Bellingen.
The centre would be a safe space, “a place of enthusiasm and positiveness” that would give young people somewhere other than the streets and parks to go at night, . Youths would “learn how to grow in the right way”, and be introduced to different music and ideas.
There would be an exercise room, art garden and hanging wall to display works, room for dance lessons and homework, and a a kitchen where kids could get meals and learn life skills.
“I always worry about the kids who've got to go to school and do exams or take part in lessons, but they've had a very difficult night – parents fighting, or the police have been called,” Cr Sparks said.
“I worry that they haven't had breakfast, and they're not ready to study, because they feel mentally alienated by their experiences at home."
Council’s youth worker is expected to operate from the centre 21 hours a week.
Council has made the building available free of charge, covering maintenance, gas, and electricity.
Joblink has offered to provide programs for free, and money to get programs running. The Community Centre’s chef has also offered to teach kids how to cook.
The Police Citizen Youth Club (PCYC), Headspace, and Backtrack may also run programs from the centre.
Cr Sparks said council’s the Youth Advisory Committee would talk to organisations in other towns in the state about how they helped their youth.
Youth Insearch will present a webcast on November 26 on how they set up the Youth Shack in Narrabri.
Safe in Our Town and other committees in the town, Cr Sparks said, are trying to communicate more with the high school, and support them.
Cr Sparks encourages youths feeling down, sad, angry, anxious, or depressed to seek the advice of the counsellor at Centacare NENW, the social services agency of the Catholic Diocese of Armidale.
The service at 200A Bourke Street is open five days a week to young people. Phone 6738 7200 or 1800 372 826 for more information.
In other news, councillors will attend a mayoral professional development weekend in Sydney on November 23 and 24.
"We're taking steps towards healing any rifts that are between counsellors, so we'll becoming a team very soon!" Cr Sparks said.