- Tell us a bit about Guide Dogs Victoria and its role in the eye health and vision care sector.
Our role in the disability sector is to provide blind and vision impaired Victorians with the support necessary to reach individual mobility and independence goals. Guide Dogs Victoria provides a broad range of services to the Victorian blind and vision impaired community. This starts with low vision solutions and aids through our Centre for Independence, orientation and mobility training/support and for a number of our clients, a further option is to be matched with a Guide Dog. We also have a specialised mobility service for clients with an acquired brain injury that may have resulted from head trauma, stroke or an accident.
Guide Dogs Victoria provides services for children and adults ranging in ages from 5 to 95. We also run a range of group support programs and camps for young children, youth, young adults and over 35’s on a regular basis.
Essentially Guide Dogs Victoria provide the support and training required by each individual blind or vision impaired client that will give them the best individual independence and mobility outcomes to suit their own individual living environment and lifestyle.
Karen Hayes, CEO (centre) pictured with Guide Dogs Victoria leadership team
- 2. Why did you choose to take this role?
I have had a fairly extensive international corporate career. I have had 14 years on the Board of the Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) which I have been on since it started. I have just gone into my seventh year as Board Member of the Melbourne Football Club, so I bring a breadth of experience, patience and passion for community work.
The work I have done in the not-for-profit sector includes the establishment of the BCNA which included their Foundation and fundraising committees. I have also been involved with the community work undertaken by the Melbourne Football Club. This included a strategy to engaging women with Melbourne Football Club and the Indigenous community through the Trachoma program.
The CEO role with Guide Dogs Victoria enables me to utilise my corporate skills, not for profit experience and community background to lead Guide Dogs Victoria through a process of significant change and challenge within the sector. Guide Dogs Victoria needs to be positioned to respond to a significant increase in the number of people with vision impairment needing support, as a result of the ageing population over the next ten years. I am fortunate to have a wonderful team of 120 employees and a large volunteer workforce who are dedicated, passionate and outstanding at what they do, which will enable Guide Dogs Victoria to prepare for this.
- What has been the highlight for you so far?
A particular highlight was when I recently attended one of our children’s camps for a day. It was a group of fourteen year olds and we had a day in the CBD. All of the clients were completely blind or severely vision impaired. One of the young female clients had cerebral palsy as well. It was the most inspirational day I have ever had. These children were amazing – catching public transport, playing bowls, going shopping, buying their lunch and navigating their way around the city. I was with five Guide Dogs Victoria Instructors and we walked 20 metres behind the group, which is part of the process of teaching these children the early stages of living independently. It was absolutely fantastic. It was life changing for me to talk to these children about challenges in their lives. I asked them all ‘What do you get most out of these camps?’ They said ‘We just feel normal. We just feel like we fit in. I’m with other people who understand just like me’. That has definitely been a highlight of my role as CEO at Guide Dogs Victoria so far.
Another highlight for me, other than the fact that we breed amazing dogs, is the quality of the staff that we have across the organisation. I’m in awe of them. They do an amazing job.
- What do you see as the challenges for Guide Dogs Victoria in the next 12 months?
The economic climate means that funding is a significant challenge right now. The not for profit sector is a very competitive and crowded space. I think the challenge for us is being innovative in terms of partnering with organisations, collaborating more with like-mind organisations, rather than thinking we can just do everything on our own.
Guide Dogs Victoria will look to collaborate more with other partners to make our services accessible and affordable for everyone in our community. We are discussing collaborative opportunities right now with organisations like Vision 2020 Australia, Vision Australia, the Eye and Ear Hospital and the Australian College of Optometry. These are opportunities for us to come to the table to say we are all good at what we do, how can we come together to provide a broader, better service to the community. I think that is the biggest challenge towards ensuring a sustainable future for service providers in the wider disability sector.
- What would be your message to the general public around eye health and vision care?
Early detection is key. If people are experiencing any level of vision deterioration they need to speak with a GP, ophthalmologist or optometrist straight away, because there are many eye health issues that can be avoided with the right preventive measures. People need to have regular eye checks in the same way you would have regular health checks. Eyes are extremely important and by taking some fairly basic steps you could potentially avoid long term damage to your eyes.
If people then find themselves in the situation of having low vision or the early stages of vision impairment to be mindful there are a wide range of solutions for them. Guide Dogs Victoria can assist people with this journey and we have a whole suite of services and vision aids that we provide for people with low vision through to more advanced vision impairment conditions.