By Mario Pinti
No one can be certain where their life’s work will land. It’s even harder to predict when the people you serve, and those who come after you, champion the vision of community wellbeing sitting at the heart of it.
That’s something to keep in mind when you next go past Altona’s Louis Joel Arts and Community Centre (LJACC); a stone’s throw from the beach on Sargood Street.
Closing in on one hundred years ago Altona Riding’s then medical officer, Dr Louis Joel, after whom the centre is named, reported to Werribee Shire council that improvements in medical services were needed in the small but growing seaside town. Particularly urgent was the provision of a baby health centre.
That was 1928.
Rolling up his sleeves and marshalling the energy of residents and others across the shire, Dr Joel led the dedicated work that eventually saw the opening of a small eight-bed hospital in a house on Pier Street in 1932.
A good start, for sure, but something more substantial and better equipped was needed. How to fund it, though, was the question.
According to Altona resident and writer Dr Bronwen Gray, a funding model based on local subscriptions was adopted in 1934 for this very purpose.
“Starting with 325 subscribers from around Altona and the shire paying 26 shilling a year, the total had risen to 813 by 1938, the year the Altona Community Hospital (ACH) opened its doors on Queen Street,” she says.
Notably, says Bronwen, Altona’s was the first hospital in Melbourne run as a not-for-profit based on bush nursing principles then operating throughout rural Victoria. Other metropolitan areas were soon to follow the Altona example.
The innovative subscription model was retired in 1960 when ACH was brought into the state health system. However, the local community never stepped away from its commitment to the hospital through vital, on-going fund-raising initiatives.
“That pretty much sums up the ethos that lies behind the establishment of Altona as a tight knit community,” says Bronwen. “If you want to see it happen, you have to work together.”
And, following the example of the good doctor, work together they continued to do when in 1996 the hospital was slated for closure by the Kennett Government, with everything to be auctioned off.
After 58 years of service, countless patients and medical procedures completed, birthing over 13,500 children, the community were justifiably up in arms at the prospect of losing what they saw as theirs.
“People marched and protested,” says Karen Ingram, LJACC’s manager. “Local activists including volunteers, residents and people on the hospital board mobilised to save what they felt belonged to Altona and what had been started under Louis Joel,”
So, a community subscription scheme was reintroduced, this time to purchase ACH’s land and buildings for public keeping. To manage this process, says Karen, the Hobson’s Bay Community Advancement Co-operative was founded independent of council and the state government.
And, following the example of Dr Joel, the community got itself organised and triumphed.
After working through the hospital’s decommissioning, imagining how this new public space might work, Louis Joel Arts and Community Centre opened its doors in 2005. Since then, it has provided what every community needs: a neighbourhood house with gallery space and a rich suite of programs encompassing the arts, ideas and wellbeing.
“People often think we’re council or we’re owned by government, but we’re not,” says Karen. “We’re independent. Along with grants, our business model has been to rent some of our space to various medical service providers and use that money to help fund what we do.”
Those tenants are now moving on, leaving the centre with the not insignificant challenge of finding new sources of income. But it also means that LJACC has an opportunity to reimagine itself and its purpose.
To help with this work, consultations with the public and stakeholders took place in 2023 that, says Karen, have provided some possible directions, particularly around community and intergenerational connectedness and wellbeing. Watch this space.
With its 2024 program underway, ideas for the future quietly gestating, you could say that down at Altona’s old hospital site they’re still helping to birth the new.
To read more about the history of Altona, including its hospital, visit: alhs.com.au
To see current program offerings visit: ljac.com.au