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Helen Ridgwell

inducted 2019 Service

One of Helen Ridgwell’s earliest memories as a schoolgirl is the mission priests who would visit her St Ann’s class and talk about world poverty. As Helen and her family lived on a farm in Nullawarre, she spent much of her early school years at the home of her Grandparents, which was close by to St Anns. Her grandfather had a big vegetable garden where Helen would pretend to grow vegetables to help feed the poor.

This empathy and a desire for equality became two of the driving forces behind Helen’s outlook on life. Another was to come later, when Helen and her husband Richard experienced the challenges experienced by people who have a disability first hand through their oldest son, Simon, whom they fostered, when he was a 14-month-old baby. They later legally adopted Simon into their family.

Helen’s experiences ultimately led to her starting the highly successful catering company business Tasty Plate. But Tasty Plate is not just any catering service. The business has been founded on the principles of social justice and social inclusion, providing meaningful life opportunities for people with a diverse range of abilities.

Tasty Plate brings together years of Helen’s work in social justice and a commitment to breaking down the barriers that prevented people with disabilities from participating fully in life’s opportunities. Of the 50 people now employed or training at Tasty Plate, more than half have a disability.

In the years before Tasty Plate, Helen studied social justice and community development at university and worked in a wide range of social justice projects. This included research for a sibling support program – to better support the siblings of children with who have a disability – that was funded by the Department of Human Services, Southern Melbourne Metro DHS branch and was the first Sibling Support program of its kind funded in the State of Victoria.

In 1996, she undertook a ‘Participatory Action Research’ project that looked at the effectiveness of integration of children who have a disability in primary schools in Bayside, Melbourne. This body of work was submitted to what was then called the Department of School Education. That same year Helen undertook research to look at recreational options for children who have a disability. The research findings demonstrated that children who have a disability are much more likely to be socially isolated. This led Helen to lobby for an ‘after school’ social activity which resulted in to the launch of the Sandy Cool Kids Club, in Sandringham, which gave children with disabilities social contacts and direct involvement in community projects. The Sandy Cool Kids Club is still going strong today.

After returning to Warrnambool in 2000, Helen continued to work in the community outreach field. She became a team leader for various programs offered through Brophy, including work to reduce homelessness, men’s behaviour programs and support for victims of crime.

It was the mid 2000s, she left paid work to turn her mind toward exploring options for creating meaningful career and lifestyle opportunities for local people who have a disability.

In 2008, with an energetic and inspired group of local people, Realise Enterprises - a disability service - was established. Three years of hard work saw the development of the Tasty Plate business & brand along with fundraising with the eventual opening of Tasty Plate in January 2011. The business started with just Helen, four people who have a disability and two chefs, working from an unused kitchen in the Presbyterian Church.

Within six months, the business had outgrown the space and, much to Helen’s delight, needed to take on more staff. In 2012, Helen signed a license agreement with the Warrnambool City Council to open a second kitchen in the Archie Graham Centre. More recently, to assist in managing growth, Realise Enterprises has merged with Brophy Family & Youth Services. The merger provides ‘back office’ support from Brophy’s Corporate Services Division so that staff at Realise Enterprises and Tasty Plate can concentrate on ‘running the business’. This partnership has also initiated the development of a new purpose-built facility in Fairy Street.

In the 10 years since it started, Tasty Plate has grown from an idea to a booming, award-winning business that is now being explored as a model to help other people who are marginalised, such as ex-prisoners or those with mental health issues. Helen’s outstanding success in this enterprise has led to Helen collaborating with Government on a 3-year pilot customised employment program with a view to the state government rolling out the program state-wide. Helen has given service to the community through holding positions on a number of community Boards and Committees and in 2017 received a Local Achiever Award on Australia Day.

For Helen, Tasty Plate is exactly how the world should work, with people of all backgrounds and abilities working, learning and socialising side by side, as a team. “I just want to wipe out discrimination,” she says. Through Helen’s ongoing work, that ambitious goal keeps inching closer.

Helen Ridgwell

2019 Inspiring Alumni

Class of 1971