Ausnew Home Care | Struggling with mental health after COVID lockdowns, Simone found help in her community

Struggling with mental health after COVID lockdowns, Simone found help in her community

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Put a camera in front of Simone Erdedi and her smile instantly lights up the room. 

The 36-year-old from Thirroul, in the New South Wales Illawarra, has always loved fashion.

In recent years, clothing hauls and dancing videos she has posted on Instagram have made her a local celebrity and led to modelling jobs.

"I love hats, big belts, big sunglasses — they make me look like a superstar," Simone, who lives with Down syndrome, said.

"I get [to] read all the nice comments people leave for me and I get lots of likes from people which makes me happy."

But her beaming confidence is a far cry from her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many Australians, she struggled with the isolation caused by extended lockdowns and began developing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

"I felt sad, I couldn't see my friends, go to my dance classes or go and do activities with my carers, and I didn't get to see my sister for many months," Simone said.

Simone's change in behaviour was especially worrying for her family.

Her brother Adrian Erdedi said she struggled not being able to interact with other people.

"All of that was gone, much the same for everyone during lockdown," he said.

"We were seeing a decline in her moods and her mental state, and her development went downhill."

Four people stand in a retail store & smile, Simone wears a hot pink shirt, blue & white blazer & black glasses.
Simone, her mum Juanita (right) and brother Adrian now consider her boss Sheralee like family.()

In April 2022, once pandemic restrictions eased, Adrian was determined to help Simone reconnect with the community.

He took to the Thirroul Living group on Facebook, asking if any local businesses were open to hiring Simone.

Within minutes, she had two paying job offers at a boutique retail collective and a local cafe.

"At first I was shocked, then I felt very happy, I did a happy dance," Simone said.

"But I was very nervous, my hands were shaking, and I got a little dizzy.

"But everyone was so nice to me."

Simone wears a hot pink shirt, blue & white blazer & black glasses, standing behind a shop counter holding a brown, paper bag an
Simone not only serves customers at the Thirroul Collective but is working with designers and modelling clothes.()

A community celebrity

Coming into work at boutique store Thirroul Collective, Simone and her boss Sheralee Rae greet each other like family with a big hug and a quick life catch-up.

A year on from Simone's first shift, Sheralee said they were the perfect pairing.

"Simone is learning new skills, she gets to help design clothing and is making essential oils," Sheralee said.

"But what I've found is the community and I actually learn from Simone.

"The amount of people that now know Simone and smile and say hello, I am thrilled."

Sheralee (left) smiles in a white blouse, Simone smiles wearing hot pink shirt, blue & white blazer & black glasses.
Sheralee Rae says Simone's honesty and work ethic make her the perfect employee.()

Simone's mother Juanita Erdedi, who moved with her family to the northern Illawarra village from Sydney a decade ago, said Simone's connection to their community was stronger than she could have imagined.

"I can see it when I drop her off, she's happy, she feels at home," Juanita said.

"She feels safe walking around, and that means a lot to us.

"The amount of people that are talking to me now that didn't before, all because of her!"

Awareness and independence

Current NDIS data shows only 26 per cent of participants with Down syndrome aged 15-64 have a paid job.

However, over 60 per cent of participants with intellectual disability and Down syndrome have listed a work goal in their NDIS plan.

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How a brother's plea scored Simone not one job - but two

Sheralee said it was a responsibility of employers to create inclusive environments for all members of the community.

"I found some customers were hesitant to use the words [Down syndrome]," she said.

"But in here, we use it openly and often.

"By using the words, it brings familiarity and normalises it."

A group of eight people wearing black work shirts stand in a cafe in front of a green wall with a black drawing of a bird.
Simone has juggled working two jobs and managing her social media page for over a year.()

For Simone, the sense of independence she gains from her weekly pay slip or the positive comments on her Instagram posts has changed her life.

She hopes that others living with a disability can feel empowered to be active members of their communities.

"I can't do my Instagram photos or videos [on] my own, or many other things without the help of my family but I always try to do things myself first," she said.

"All people want is the best for you, so don't be scared to ask for help."

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