It seems remarkable to think that almost 30 years ago it took two young men directly impacted by spinal injuries to create their own support services on the Sunshine Coast, so they could live independently with their families.
In a sense not unlike some of the tech startups to follow, the idea started at home and was developed in the spare room and the garage.
While it seems unfathomable in 2020 that once upon a time support services would need to be created by the very people that needed them, that’s part of the rich history and extraordinary recent growth of 121 Care.
Its origins began primarily to help people with spinal injuries live independent lives.
“It began as an organisation run by people with disability for people with disability,” CEO Kym Chomley remarked with pride looking back at its origins.
“That ethos continues today. The majority of our board are still people with lived experience of disability.”
Back in 1992, funding was actually extremely hard to come by in disability services.
Ms Chomley, generous and warm in person, doesn’t mince words on what the founders encountered.
“Until the NDIS, QLD was one of the most underfunded states for disability in Australia. For everyone who was getting some funding, there was another person out there who got none, which was just horrendous. Today, I think NDIS is the best thing that’s ever happened to disability in Australia. It may not perfect, but it’s much better than the alternative.”
The early years of 121 Care were known for stability and a singular focus.
There was a clear mandate to support a small group of clients (capped at a maximum of 30) backed by a larger support staff headcount compared to other organisations to ensure continuity of service and the development of better relationships between clients and staff.
Under the stewardship of Caroline Hodges, for 17 years the business was noted for its continuity of care to around 20-25 clients across south-east Queensland with around 50 staff.
“121 Care from the beginning had the ethos that clients have choice and control and can choose their support workers and when that support is provided,” Ms Chomley said.
“These people have mental capacity and pride and the deep desire to live life on their own terms.
“That’s proven the best way to run the business, despite some significant change along the way.”
121 Care had never swayed from its core service delivery, which was to deliver support services for people living with spinal injuries. This included services many of us take for granted, assisting people to get of bed and into bed each day, to showering and getting dressed.
While 121 Care had developed a strong reputation for its service delivery to spinal care clients, huge change was coming for the disability services sector.
Ms Chomley began with 121 Care in 2013, and quickly zeroed in on a coming storm for 121 Care and others like it.
“I come from a finance background and could see how smaller players would be crowded out of the market if they didn’t look to broaden their services.
“The NDIS changed everything. I quickly realised we wouldn’t survive without taking a few calculated risks so we could continue supporting our clients for the next 30 years.”
With the support and guidance of the Board, Ms Chomley did something that was perhaps counter intuitive for a non-profit organisation – 121 Care bought two businesses.
“Not for profits don’t buy businesses, it just doesn’t happen. But just because we’re not for profit, doesn’t mean for loss, we’re for surplus, otherwise we can’t reinvest in our clients, our staff and our services.
“To keep our services to clients with spinal injuries on a sustainable footing, we needed to invest in other areas.
“We needed some subsidiary businesses to support our purpose driven and people orientated ethos.”
121 Care was able to purchase a mental health supported accommodation business, which supplies accommodation and support for 31 people.
“We’re seeing really encouraging things here and the benefits of providing people with stability. I’m a great believer that if we provide people the right services, they can stay out of the health system.
Ms Chomley’s eyes light up as she describes a recent mental health client who arrived in challenging circumstances but now has a job as a barista and “you’ve never seen a happier person”.
121 Care also branched out into providing accommodation and 24-7 care for people with intellectual disabilities. These services have been in heavy demand since the business was purchased a few years ago and shows no signs of slowing.
“I think the thing I find really distressing is when a parent with a 50-year-old child with a disability goes into care or dies. The poor adult child who has never known any other support than Mum and Dad loses their home, their support and family members and their whole world is shattered all at once. Whereas if you can actually help these people transition into a place they can call home while their parents are still alive and they’re still able to see their child, their child has a stable home then and a community around them, before their parent needs to go into care themselves or passes away. There’s so much demand out there, we can’t keep up with that one.”
Ms Chomley reflects with some pride on the growth of 121 Care in recent years.
In six years, 121 Care has changed its business model, after a period Ms Chomley admits was static and once where “we’d remained unchanged at 25 clients and about 50 staff”.
121 Care now has 110 clients and around 200 staff, with turnover increasing from $2 Million to $11 Million. Most of this increase in turnover has occurred in just a few years, with turnover more than doubling from $5 Million to $11 Million.
Ms Chomley is quick to credit staff for the success.
“You can’t achieve tremendous growth without people who are willing to challenge themselves and grow in their roles and take on new projects. It has been an exciting ride.”
The future is also bright, with 121 Care outgrowing its current premises in Maroochydore and being the first tenant to sign on for the game changing Sunshine Coast health and wellness project Vitality Village.
Vitality Village is a $20-million project in Birtinya which aims to see big business, start ups and community service providers collaborate and look at new ways to solve health and community challenges, including mental health, loneliness, and aged care.
“That’s the next stage of our evolution,” Ms Chomley said.
“I know it’s the right move. The collaboration will deliver 100-fold. We will be exposed to different viewpoints and people from different industries. I think this is one of the problems with the social services industry in Australia. It doesn’t tend to look outside its own industry very much, . I’ve always believed that innovation comes from other industries.”
“I like having a broader perspective than just our industry and I think Vitality Village will help us be more agile and sharpen our organisation as one with more of a future and innovation outlook.
“What I’m looking forward to is working with people from completely different areas to come up with different solutions.”
The move will suit Ms Chomley, who describes her own leadership style as collaborative and one where she likes empowering people and mentoring team members. Ms Chomley herself is at ease with people and her own thoughts. That might explain why she is equally at home on a local farm with her partner (“I go there and attack the lantana”) or riding a motorbike.
Ms Chomley is adamant the road to be travelled next is no less exciting than the first 30 years.
“The next stage of our development will look at ways we can solve problems without always needing government funding. I’m a firm believer in government support, but government is not responsible for solving all the ills.
“The post COVID-19 area will lead to heightened demand. For 121 Care, we think we are well prepared to continue to deliver for our clients.
“We’re retaining our ethos. I don’t think people realise just how much we’ve grown.
“We’re still managing to hold on to that ethos that is client centric.
“Everyone now says they’re client centric as a buzz word.
“But delivering for our clients is something we’ve been doing for 30 years, so for us it’s who we are as a business.”