By Rob O'Brien
John Perkins recalls the motivation that drove him and his wife to establish a charity focused solely on delivering infrastructure in co-operation with councils.
“We were heavily involved with a few charities and we always thought it would be great if there was a charity out there that did three or four key things,” he tells Government News.
“And we said that when we found that charity we’d know it and put a lot of effort into it.”
The opportunity to set up their charity arrived in the most devastating circumstances, when their eight-month-old daughter, Olivia, passed away in 2006. It gave the couple a renewed sense of purpose.
“We always talked about it before, but when our little girl passed away we saw it almost as our calling,” he says.
The Perkins’ charity – Touched By Olivia – builds, through private and public partnerships, all-abilities playgrounds to integrate children with special needs and to attract families, irrespective of age and the obstacles they face.
The Touched By Olivia Foundation’s driving force was carved from the Perkins’ own tragic experiences, hence the three key candidates for their playgrounds: families settling into a new environment; parents of a child hospitalised for long periods of time; and parents trying to learn the ropes to successfully raising a growing family.
The proposal has some broader benefits. With high-density living on the rise, the Perkins saw fewer places for children and communities to meet.
There are also widely publicised health issues affecting Australian children and a growing trend of both parents opting to work.
“We’ve seen a real change in the fabric of communities where communities just don’t get together these days,” John Perkins says. “Our aim was really to create playgrounds which allowed communities to meet.”
Touched By Olivia has grown significantly in a short space of time. In four years the foundation has raised $2.5 million for its work at the Sydney Children’s Hospital and for construction of all-abilities playgrounds, titled Livvi’s Place Playgrounds: some already opened in Sydney and others set to be constructed. The aim is to take the playgrounds to every community in Australia, Perkins says.
One major Livvi’s Place playground was co-built with the City of Canada Bay Council and Leighton Contractors. It was a $1.2 million project.
Out of that sum, the foundation put in $600,000 and raised $350,000 in cash. In-kind contributions came through corporate partners, including Leightons, who supplied project management expertise, engineering contractors and landscapers. Local government matched the amount raised through fundraising.
“Every dollar we raise either in cash, fundraising or in kind, the council matches, dollar for dollar,” Perkins says. “It’s like any partnership, which is about the meeting of the minds and people sharing a common goal or objective.”
That ethos has been drilled into the foundation’s goals and objectives and it is helping to create communal areas that are inclusive and attract people from outside the catchment areas
“They’re interacting with the able-bodied kids… biases aren’t hard-wired into those kids from an early age,” Perkins says. “We’re also getting special schools from two or three hours away, it’s a regional asset, not just a Canada Bay asset.”
From the perspective of local government, the process is as easy to manage. The City of Canada Bay says the partnership has been incredibly beneficial.
“As a contract manager, this is one of the simplest contracts I’ve ever dealt with and it was done with a handshake, literally,” says landscape architect for Canada Bay Council, Ben Richards.
“The paperwork is three or four pages long, and I think the reason for that was that the people involved realised the absolute need for this asset in the community, and the only focus was on delivering it… profit didn’t get in the way and risk was dealt with in a handshake.”
In the first instance, Richards says the council had to approach the State Government to ensure it was not setting up a public-private partnership (PPP).
“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the Department of Local Government, we had to ensure we weren’t creating a PPP,” he says. “We sought a lot of legal advice to ensure we weren’t going to upset any procurement laws.”
Richards says the state laws “didn’t exclude Touched By Olivia, because it doesn't exclude registered charities – it’s a grey point that needed to be dealt with because Touched By Olivia wanted to build a lot of playgrounds.”
As Leightons, the contractor responsible for installing the playgrounds, was working for free, there was also no need to go to public tender as required by the state’s procurement laws.
Despite these clarifications, the partnership functioned perfectly, with all parties focused on the end-goal of delivering a vital and worthy piece of local infrastructure.
“What we can do as a council is promote Leightons very effectively,” Richards says. “What Leightons can do for council is deliver infrastructure very quickly. From the council’s perspective, we got something built very quickly, very efficiently and very professionally.”
John Perkins says that Touched By Olivia will not work with any council without first ensuring the general manager and the mayor are behind the project.
“We’re definitely not about giving the council money, but what we are about is building a landscape facility in the area that will draw people from all over,” he says.
Visitors to the Livvi’s Place playground in Canada Bay have increased seven-fold, Perkins says, with around 10 per cent of visitors including children with disabilities.
“We get daily feedback from parents about how it’s changed their lives,” he says. “In the past, a lot of councils have built disabled playgrounds and have put in a special swing that only the disabled kids can use, which forces segregation rather than inclusion. The whole fundamental design is that it encourages integrated playing.”
Perkins says that it is the partnerships that make the playgrounds possible and vital, and that the buy-in has to come from the most senior members of local government for it to work.
“We want to see councils that truly want to partner and don’t see it as a cash handout,” he says, “because there is a big learning process from their side as well.
“A lot of councils we’ve worked with aren’t used to a real collaborative, real community process and this really needs to be driven by the mayor and general manager downwards, otherwise you do run the risk of getting caught up in the administration of local government, which can derail the process.”
Perkins says the City of Canada Bay “have been fantastic”, but without the ear of the general manager or the mayor, things could have been seriously derailed.
“Once you’re in the councils, the drive and desire to make these things happen is phenomenal.”
In the future, Perkins would like to see the playgrounds he has worked so hard to develop fall into the hands of the community organisations that are best placed to run them, possibly through a three-way partnership with the foundation and local government.
The Touched By Olivia model has attracted attention for its simplicity and its social value, but for already asset-burdened councils, it ticks every box.
“What we’ve achieved is a template for a model that can ensure that a lot of these assets that are socially acquired, not roads and stuff, but social capital, can be a lot easier and cheaper, based on proper promotion,” Perkins says.
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