Two weeks ago – in mid March – we planned an important milestone for the Our Town initiative. People from our six shortlisted towns and regions would come together face-to-face for the very first time on beautiful Kangaroo Island. This would be a time for meeting, sharing meals and stories, and officially starting this important mental health initiative.

The flights and accommodation were booked, the agenda was ready, the coffee was practically poured. However, in the midst of all of this, the world as we knew it was changing. Things were moving rapidly and, it was decided that flying our townspeople from around country South Australia and bringing partner organisations from interstate for several days was not the best plan. And, as this was a mental health initiative, the welfare of everyone was always going to be our number one priority.

As luck would have it, we were working closely with the team from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation who rapidly formulated a Plan B. We would take the entire face-to-face retreat – from workshops to afternoon teas – and plug it into the virtual world. As a result, about 20 of our rural and regional town participants were beamed in from Berri, Ceduna, Cummins, Kangaroo Island, Kimba and the Mid Murray region. They were joined by our support team members in both South Australia and the eastern states, including our evaluation partner Clear Horizon. Over two days everyone was guided through a series of workshop activities and discussions.  The technology allowed for real time collaboration on key issues, whole of group conversations and even small group video chatrooms.

Although our rural and regional representatives may have had some initial misgivings and were disappointed they didn’t get the chance to meet in person, they were really surprised at what could be achieved online.

Here are some of the things they said:

‘I feel like we are all one big family now. Again, online is just not the same as face to face but I think we took advantage of every break out to really connect.’

‘Everyone was very accommodating and able to share airtime. Very important for the introverts in the room. We were able to make comments in the chatbox and the document if we didn’t get a chance to speak.’

 The town and regional representatives were even taken through an online video editing session and here is one of the great results from someone who was initially sceptical about her own talents! Even though we couldn’t fly over there in person, Jeanette was able to take us to her beautiful home in Kangaroo Island.

 

The support team was equally pleased with the outcome and could observe the participants sharing their expertise and learning from each other. Overall, while there were some obvious limits to the online environment, such as the fact that the usual interpersonal cues were missing, the retreat was deemed a resounding success.

As we continue through these uncertain times, we really want to applaud our towns and regions for being so flexible and willing to move with the changes. We look forward to a time – hopefully in the not-too-distant future – when we can all stand shoulder to shoulder, shake hands and finally drink that coffee!