24 March 2023

Blinding inspiration kicks Sonya into action

| John Thistleton
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Site manager at Goulburn Resource Recovery Centre Annette Dunn and Endeavour Industries general manager Sonya White

Site manager at Goulburn Resource Recovery Centre Annette Dunn and Endeavour Industries general manager Sonya White oversee a tight-knit team who are gradually upgrading working conditions for people with disabilities. Photo: John Thistleton.

Sonya White woke one morning 15 years ago to discover her right eye was not working as it should. She thought it was a stye. But it was more serious, and the first circumstance in changing her life.

A hairdresser for 20 years, she went off to work and tried unsuccessfully to get in to see a doctor. She went home for lunch, bent down to get a plate and everything went black. After treatment at the emergency department her condition did not improve.

She was later referred to Bowral eye surgeon Dr Peter Macken who diagnosed optic neuritis. “He knew what it was and said not to google it and go to the doctor,” she said. Subsequent medical appointments uncovered multiple sclerosis.

Her hand shakes and loss of vision meant she was unsuited to hairdressing. “I ended up working on a bus with children with disabilities being transported to school. Loved it and from there the rest is history,” she said.

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She worked her way to disabilities employer Endeavour Industries, starting in 2018 as the general manager. Operating a steam laundry and recycling centre at two sites in Goulburn, Endeavour employs 38 staff with disabilities and their support staff of 19.

Sonya said those early weeks were a kick in the pants – just what she needed after giving in to gloom immediately after her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. “I had about two months where I probably wasn’t the nicest person to be around,” the mother-of-two said.

That welcome ‘kick in the pants’ was seeing Endeavour’s staff wrestle doggedly with ageing infrastructure including a 1946 boiler essential for the steam laundry in Oxley Street.

Before and after work the staff toiled away to coax the old boiler into action. Sonya also found equally committed people with all sorts of disabilities getting their jobs done, whether ironing work shirts or picking out rubbish from a line of materials.

“I cared, these guys were just awesome,” she said. As her life took on a sense of purpose, things changed at Endeavour Industries too. By late 2020 she had secured enough funding for a new boiler worth $96,000.

Crew at Endeavour Industries

Sonya White, front row right, says she is surrounded by an excellent crew at Endeavour Industries. Photo: John Thistleton.

“She turned the whole place around,” Annette Dunn, a long-serving site manager at Goulburn Resource Recovery Centre in Sinclair Street said.

Thanks to Annette and her Endeavour colleagues, Sonya has just won a Goulburn Mulwaree Award for her outstanding contribution to the disability sector.

At its other site in Sinclair Street, Endeavour sorts all the recycling that comes out of residents’ yellow lid bins for Goulburn Mulwaree Council. It’s one of only a few recovery centres still hand sorting rather than using mechanisation. Annette is adamant it’s a better process. “We can see what we’re picking. A machine can pick up something by mistake,” she said. “Or pick up items stuck together, where we can separate them. We get a lot cleaner product.

“It’s not hard work, it’s constant, you are picking a milk bottle, PET bottle or steel or aluminium can off the line and putting it down a chute,” Annette said. Pressed into bales, the material goes to Sydney and Melbourne and re-enters the recycling stream.

At Oxley Street’s small business section staff shred documents, assemble tent ropes and sort nuts and bolts, as well as run the laundry.

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“We do ironing for Boral uniforms, some private ironing, commercial laundry for hairdressers, physiotherapists, aged care facilities, motels, Airbnbs,” Sonya said.

Going from school into jobs at Endeavour Industries builds new recruits’ confidence and social skills. At work music and morning tea maintain an upbeat atmosphere.

Former state MP Prue Goward hosted a fundraiser in her garden in 2018 for Endeavour, and sitting Members Wendy Tuckerman and Angus Taylor have been awesome, according to Sonya. “Our local tradies are awesome too. We have had lots of people help,” she said.

Her medication causes insomnia, and she has turned that to her advantage too. “You cannot vacuum at that hour so I do grant applications,” she said. Sonya dreams of expanding Endeavour Industries and is awaiting the outcome of more grant applications.

“I would like to end up with premises at both sites that are safe, inviting, happy and allow us to expand,” she said. “These guys like to feel they are helpful and important and purpose is important.”

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