Academic spotlight: Debbie Smith discovered her passion in community services

Debbie Smith with kids from Balgo WA

Passionate about making a difference in people’s lives, Debbie Smith’s professional background is steeped in community.

Torrens University Australia’s Senior Lecturer in Community Services and Counselling has a heart for people. Debbie Smith chose to further her studies in disability and special education when she decided being a speech pathologist wasn’t the best fit for her. Having worked in education and healthcare and supported projects for the Indigenous communities as well as young people with disabilities, Debbie discovered her passion in community services. 

Making a positive difference in people’s lives gives Debbie her greatest sense of achievement. “Community services is all about supporting people. It’s all about connecting them with the services that provide the information they need,” says Debbie, whose commitment to enriching the lives of others has defined her career trajectory. Debbie has been a force in tertiary education for more than 40 years. She was the head of Special Education at University of Tasmania, a lecturer in Disability and Community Inclusion at Flinders University, and she’s taught Educational Psychology at University of Brunei Darussalam.  Unsurprisingly, Debbie is motivated by the connection she shares with each of her students. In this way, Torrens University’s small classes are perfectly suited to her personalised approach to teaching. Teaching in small classes allows for an immersive learning experience for her students, while offering Debbie in-depth insight into their development.  Supporting individuals with a range of needs, whether in the classroom or beyond, means no one day for Debbie is ever the same. “The joy about every day, is every day is different,” she says. “They are never going to be the same, because it’s all about people – and people are never the same.”  

Debbie Smith New Colombo visit
Debbie presenting the Colombo Plan’s funding supported by the Australian Government Photo credits: Debbie Smith

A life-long passion for community service 

Debbie’s passion has taken her all over the world. She’s worked in the Philippines, supporting young people with intellectual disabilities to find employment, and she’s a long-time consultant at an autism centre in Brunei, where she lived in the early 2000’s. 


Debbie Smith at 5th Brunei National Autism conference
Debbie at the 5th National Autism Conference in Brunei Photo credits: Debbie Smith

Back home, Debbie has worked alongside the federal government to support projects for the Indigenous communities. “Community development is not just coming in and running a program for people but getting the community to be able to do things for themselves,” says Debbie. “That’s been such a joy for me.” Debbie is equally passionate about sharing her experiences with her students. She’s taken some of them overseas to complete placements at the organisations she’s contributed to. Debbie says offering them the chance to apply their skills in real-life contexts is invaluable – and inspiring. A former student of Debbie’s was so inspired, she set up a trust for young people in her home country, Africa. 

Debbie Smith with Students New Colombo
Debbie with her students in Brunei Photo credits: Debbie Smith

Using a person-centred approach

Debbie started in community services in 1978, when the disability sector’s one-size-fits-all approach meant not everybody’s needs were being met – or even understood. Today, the industry’s person-centred approach focuses on the individual as a person – not their disability or condition. That means their unique circumstances, capabilities and aspirations are considered, with services tailored accordingly.

The future of the industry

“Research tells us that there are increasing numbers of people living with disability and people who are getting older, and we will need more people working in those areas,” says Debbie of the future of community services. 

The employment outlook for health care and social assistance, published by the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, is projected to increase by by 252,600 (or 15%) over the next five years to May 2024. By 2050, one million health and community care workers are needed in Australia, according to the estimates by The Human Services Skills Organisation.

“Our population is aging and what we want to do is make sure there’s a positive experience for people. We don’t want them to feel that they can’t be part of their community anymore or that they can’t contribute.”

Aside from aged care and disability as well as vulnerable population groups, there’s increased demand for services that assist people struggling in the current climate. “The pandemic has made us understand how fragile some people’s lives are,” says Debbie. “We see an increased amount of anxiety in the community because people are isolated during lockdown and don’t have others around to support them. We’ve seen an increase in tele-counselling and tele-support, where people are calling help lines because they have no one else.”

The Australian Community Sector Survey Special Report (September 2020) published by the Australian Council of Social Service shows that in the four months since the pandemic started in March 2020, 61% of the community sector workers who participated in the survey reported that the overall level of demand for the main service they were involved with had either increased 40% or increased significantly 21% since March 2020.  

With a growing reliance on services that help all types of individuals to navigate all kinds of challenges, it’s also the responsibility of the community service sector to raise awareness and encourage the wider population to play a part. 

“Community service is about connecting people with the support they need to live their best life,” says Debbie. “It’s about helping not just those people, but helping the communities understand what might be needed.”

 Is a career in community services right for you?

“The community services industry is for people who really care about people,” says Debbie. “It’s for individuals who want to make a difference in people’s lives.” A dynamic field, the community services sector offers endless career opportunities, with roles that leverage advocacy, social policy and community development to improve the lives of others. “It’s an industry that allows us to be creative and innovative,” adds Debbie. “So, if that’s you, this is exactly what you need to do.”


Listen to Debbie Smith's interview on her community services journey



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