The Skills, Training, Engagement and Practical Support (STEPS) program was established in 2011 in partnership with the then Department of Planning & Community Development, with $750,000 available for funding. As at 30 June, 2014, 52 grants had been made via the program.

The STEPS program was designed to enhance leadership in rural communities, improve the ability of not-for-profit groups to develop and implement community projects and provide human resource support to reduce the impacts of volunteer fatigue post the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

Grants of up to $30,000 were available for projects that met the objectives of  one of five  categories:

  1. Practical Human Resource Support: Projects that provide evidence that human resource support is needed to allow successful completion of recovery-related initiatives;
  2. Training and Skill Development: Projects that enhance the skill base of community groups through enabling members to attend formal training courses or workshops;
  3. Strengthen Community Networks and Communication: Projects that encourage communities to work together, network, share information and learn from each other;
  4. Community Leadership: Projects that assist members of community groups to learn effective communication, motivation and planning skills through attending established leadership training courses; and
  5. Mentoring: Projects that provide community groups and individuals within community groups, access to support and guidance through a suitable mentor.

The Practical Human Resource Support category received the greatest level of demand and this largely involved relieving volunteers of their duties by assigning a paid position to focus on key recovery projects. There were no requests for funding for mentoring projects.

The STEPS program has made a significant difference to the Victorian communities recovering and rebuilding after the devastating 2009 fires. Read below how the Friends and Relatives of Gulf Station (FROGS) used their STEPS grant to ensure Gulf Station's successful operation for many years to come.

Gulf Station is transformed by community commitment

Gulf Station, one of Australia’s oldest farm complexes, was once a thriving community and tourism asset for the Yarra Valley in Victoria. A remarkable survivor of the 2009 bushfires, Gulf Station was caught between two ferocious fronts, which came within 200m of the buildings. Volunteers fought ember attacks and grass fires to save Gulf Station and they were awarded the Outstanding Contribution by Volunteers Award at the Victorian Tourism Awards for their brave role.

Prior to the fires, Gulf Station had experienced financial losses and it was clear that the current operating model was unsustainable. The National Trust* set a task to find a financially viable solution for the site that could be sustained long term. Friends and Relatives of Gulf Station (FROGS) was established as a volunteer group to look after Gulf Station, tending the gardens, conducting guided tours, and school holiday and educational activities.

Finding the right solution

In 2013, FRRR’s Skills, Training, Engagement & Practical Support (STEPS) program provided FROGS with a $19,662 grant to fund a Volunteer Coordinator for 12 months. It was planned that the coordinator would support volunteers for the first season of operation, to upskill them in confidently running the site again.

However, following further research into the best solution, the National Trust decided the STEPS grant would be more effectively used to appoint a Gulf Station Coordinator, extending the role past the original 12 month period.

The strategy developed, with a mix of commercial, tourism and community activities, and helped re-engage and excite current volunteers about re-opening the site. Many volunteers had felt fatigued and psychologically affected post the fires, and given the average age is 70 – they really appreciated this new support model.

Getting back on track

The approach has been extremely successful, and with the coordinator continuing in the role, Gulf Station is set for the future with a sustainable and viable operating model. It is clear that:

  • Gulf Station is once again a community hub and tourist attraction with a calendar of events and activities that has reconnected the community and visitors to the area;
  • The team of volunteers has the appropriate skills and are engaged to support events and activities; and
  • Gulf Station is managed using a sustainable model that generates income to support the cost of a Property Manager and core running expenses.

The Gulf Station Coordinator and volunteers are now hosting a range of onsite activities in partnerships with local groups; such as re-establishing the local bonfire night, opening a Tourist Maze Maize, running monthly family fun days and school holiday programs, and conducting guided tours of the heritage property.

The successful re-launch of Gulf Station confirmed the importance of community involvement and significant volunteer and community commitment – this is what made the comeback possible. The STEPS program is proud to be a part of the re-launch of Gulf Station to ensure the conservation of this historic Australian landmark for years to come.

*The National Trust of Australia (Victoria) is an independent not-for-profit organisation, supported by its members and the community. It was established in 1956 to actively conserve and protect the heritage of properties for future generations and the community to enjoy.