In their corner


In their corner

words mel jaunay
PHOTOGRAPHY sam kroepsch
>> Disability Support worker Teresa Gerlach with her dog Luca

In the peachy glow of a Barossa sunrise, 47-year-old Teresa Gerlach clicks the front door closed and steps out along the tidy tree-lined street of her historic home at Nuriootpa. 

Her Maltese Poodle, Luca, trots loyally at her ankles, silent companion to this daily ritual – Teresa’s mental and physical “reset” before she willingly hands over her daily attention to the needs of others.

As a disability support worker, the seemingly simple act of walking her dog every morning is not taken for granted.

Teresa knows, better than most, that for some, even getting out of bed in the morning can be a momentous struggle – yet can also represent the greatest of achievements when personal challenges are tackled and overcome.

“I think, success comes in lots of different ways,” says Teresa, reflecting on her journey into a field of work that, in many ways, her own life experiences have perfectly shaped her for.

“Success might be something small… to go out for a walk, maybe say hello to someone, or even just walk past someone and not veer off.

“A young person I support is now able to shop for themselves and pay for their groceries at the supermarket, which is a fantastic achievement. It has been a journey to get to this point but a big success in learning basic life skills.”

Showing compassion and understanding for the needs of others was instilled in Teresa from a young age. Having come from a sheltered upbringing, starting part time work at Nuriootpa Pharmacy at age 15 was a culture shock of a good kind.

“When I went into pharmacy, I met so many different people,” she reflects.

“My pharmacy family was my biggest influence as far as just accepting people for their best and their worst days. It opened my eyes, definitely.”

The inclusive, caring environment of a traditional country pharmacy resonated with Teresa so much that she stayed for 22 years, sharing milestones with her colleagues such as her first wedding, the birth of her two daughters, Daria and Ebony, now in their 20s, and other highs and lows of life.

But just over seven years ago, as she and her family navigated a divorce, and with underscoring changes to the pharmacy industry, Teresa found herself seeking a different way to serve her community.

After first exploring study to become a School Services Officer (SSO), it was quite by chance Teresa “fell” into disability support work, after answering an ad posted on social media, seeking one-on-one help for a person with a disability.

“It was tough but the challenge I needed,” Teresa says of her leap of faith.

“I was easily happy to put my focus into someone else and help them feel successful.”

Since that first client, Teresa’s natural nurturing instincts have been strengthened with experience and training, and her client base has grown to nine community-based clients, who she visits at home, and 11 hydrotherapy clients, who she works with at Countrywide Physio at Nuriootpa.

She works for herself, rather than an agency, which she believes allows her freedom to serve and interact with her clients in a more fulfilling way – and the work is far from limited to the stereotypical image of a helper pushing a wheelchair.

“My client and their families know exactly who’s coming every day,” Teresa says.

“When you’re coming into a house, or a person’s life and they’re at their most vulnerable, or not particularly dignified, (it helps if) you know you can trust that that person is just going to come in and pick up where you can’t.

“Sometimes my work may not be focused around the client right at that moment. Particularly in a family environment when a parent’s support is what is needed by the client, I can support in other ways by doing the dishes or helping with the household chores to free up mum or dad. Or giving some time to a sibling who may be feeling left out.

“I think as my own worker, I can just go in and follow the lead of the family, and whatever they need at the time, I’m happy to do and happy to help.”

“If nothing else, me coming into someone’s life like this, allows that person to have someone in their corner. It’s someone who can understand and listen to them on their best or worst day, because sometimes that’s all that they may need.”


Working for clients with disabilities and conditions, both ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’, Teresa has an acute understanding of how important the NDIS has become to the holistic support of a client, by giving them ‘choice and control’.

“There’s a fantastic amount of funding and professionals involved with it… there’s behavioural therapists, there’s play therapists, there’s occupational therapists… there’s a team of people supporting this person. If they didn’t have the NDIS, they wouldn’t have that support,” she explains.

For young people, in particular, Teresa says having access to a range of professionals and support workers is vital to their success. With six of her community clients being under the age of 16, she understands the challenges they and their families face.

“The world is moving so quickly and I see that these young teens and kids just aren’t keeping up with changes and being able to adapt, and I want to support them to build their resilience,” she shares.

“If nothing else, me coming into someone’s life like this, allows that person to have someone in their corner. It’s someone who can understand and listen to them on their best or worst day, because sometimes that’s all that they may need.”

And while, at times, she’s on the receiving end of challenging behaviour, she doesn’t take it personally – resilience is a strength learned on both sides.

“You have to be flexible because someone might be having a good day, or someone might be having a bad day, but it also might change within those few hours that you can be with someone,” she says.

“So if you can’t be adaptable, then it may not work. It probably doesn’t work.”

Rejuvenated after her morning walk, Teresa pushes her dark hair back from her face and turns her attention to the day ahead, knowing it will be engaging and different, as every day is.

For her, there are no normal business hours. She moulds her time to suit the needs of her clients, while still finding some to share with her fiancé, Kirk, who she’ll marry in a small beach wedding on the Sunshine Coast in October. 

Besides, it’s the type of ‘work’ she puts in inverted commas, because there’s so much enjoyment for her in spending time with people, in sharing their activities, their achievements, and for those who are able, their progression to a more independent life.

“The clients that you work with, they also give back. They’re giving back to me on a constant (basis),” smiles Teresa.

“I think my biggest achievement will be, and I try to think of a different word, but I can’t ever come up with it, is when someone doesn’t need me anymore,” she continues.

“Ultimately that’s what you’re working towards, for this person to feel empowered enough that they can say, thank you, and now I’ll see you out on a Sunday lunch or in the shopping centre and we can still say hi, how are you?”

It is in these triumphs that she, too, modestly acknowledges her own journey and accomplishments.

“I think sometimes you get happiness in many different ways, or as I said, you measure success in many different ways and that’s where mine lies, I suppose,” she says.

“If someone else is happy or just feels accomplished in some way, then that makes me happy too.”

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