Joy and fulfilment

For Chris Russell, his most rewarding job ever came with a pay cut and a seven-day work week. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Two years ago, Chris joined Newcastle based disability support service provider CIMS. His longtime friend, CIMS owner Chris Skurrie, had been suggesting for months that Chris come to work for him.
“I was ready to leave my retail job,” explains Chris Russell.

“I wanted to try something different, I wanted to make a difference. So I started working for CIMS in building management and housing services. We provide independent living accommodation and daily support under NDIS.

“Our participants are well looked after, albeit at times with not enough to do, which can leave them without a sense of purpose,” shared Chris, who quickly discovered what a difference seemingly random acts of kindness can make.

“On my first day, we picked up second-hand furniture for one of our participants and were asked whether we also wanted a fan. I didn’t want to take it because it didn’t look that great. But Chris (Skurrie) said yes. When we dropped that fan off at the participant’s house, it was like Christmas to her and she was over the moon. I couldn’t believe it.

“Chris explained to me that nobody had ever given her anything, this was a first for her and it made a mundane, random object like a fan extra special.
“It just literally changed my whole perception, and I kept thinking about what can we do to support these guys moving forward.“

Drawing upon his background in hospitality, he suggested that CIMS open a café and employ NDIS clients. “We had the opportunity to take over a café in One Mile at the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary,” Chris recalls.

“Then the Coliseum in Mayfield became available three months later and they both filled up with participants straight away. We opened it up to anyone on NDIS, not just to our CIMS clients.”
Less than two years later, CIMS operates five venues and employs 75 participants. A café in Boolaroo, a fully licensed restaurant on Hunter Street in Newcastle East and, most recently, the Royal Oak Hotel in Cessnock have been added to the portfolio.

“We have one support worker for every participant. And we pay both the full awards wage, rather than just $3.50/hour as many other NDIS providers do. We don’t pull any profits from any of the venues. Anything we make gets re-invested back into the business.
“Our goal is to offer opportunities to more participants, to match their skillsets to the right opportunity. We want to be able to say yes to anyone interested and for nobody to be disheartened by the fact that we’ve had to say no.

“That’s not to say we haven’t had our ups and downs. It’s not always easy to find the right support workers and we have had to become more structured in how we start participants off, to look at their current capabilities and how we can develop them,” he admits.

The Hunter Street venue in particular has been a challenging one and discussions with council about re-instating a license for live music are ongoing. With excellent feedback for their food, live music would provide a much-needed extra drawcard.

But despite the challenges, Chris couldn’t be happier with the results.
“Success for us is when we see participants gain confidence, when they come out of their shell,” he shares.

Read more about CIMS Cafe in our Spring Edition of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.
Story by Cornelia Schulze, photography by Frank Schulze