Meet: CEO of Holdsworth Community and mother of two, Ruth Kestermann

I met with Ruth Kestermann, CEO of Holdsworth Community.

It was on International Day for People with Disability and we spoke how Holdsworth works to foster a more inclusive community and her journey as a mother and CEO. 

Holdsworth Community has been operating for over 30 years in Woollahra and provides services for people across the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. They have over 85 programs and services, ranging from after-school care for children and teens with a disability to activities for people with dementia and support for carers, playgroups, Meals on Wheels, community transport and even a community café.

The NFP sector was not Ruth’s original career choice, the trained Engineer worked in the commercial engineering space but life directed her to bigger things like developing a Not-For-Profit (NFP) arm of a company that focused on international development. After three and a half years of projects abroad and births of her two children, Ruth accepted the role of CEO at Holdsworth Community where she could maintain a healthy life/work balance while still making a difference to the greater community.

“I remember when I was pregnant with Saskia, I had this amazing project up in Central Australia for two weeks in a very remote community which meant flying up in a small propeller aircraft. I remember thinking ‘it’ll be fine’ especially after checking with my doctor but my Project Manager was completely against it. Looking back, I realise if something had happened to me on that trip, as a Project Manager, you would feel personally responsible”.

It was a trip to Bangladesh however that changed her direction. 

“I had a big project in Bangladesh and was due to head off but at the time I was also pregnant with my son and knew it would be exhausting. I didn’t want to go but with no one else to go, I would be letting the project down. When I returned to work after my son’s birth, there were more amazing projects which meant month-long stints abroad but I realised something had shifted, I had two small children at home and this work is no longer going to work for me.

How I now manage my work/life/NFP balance

Gratitude: “I always appreciate all the things I have, feel very lucky, and try to learn from everything that happens”.

Be Present: “When I’m at home with the kids I try really hard to just be there with them, be it spending that half an hour reading stories with them, or whatever it is.

Yoga: “I practice yoga, and I’ve said loads of times that it’s saved my life!”

My Partner: “My husband is really great, we make sure each of us has activities during the week as well so we can stay slightly sane”.

Standing Up for Me: “I think there’s onus on boundaries and confidence of women. Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince women that it’s ok to stand up for things, because in some workplaces it’s not. And I know I’ve – experienced it, and when I look back I think how on earth could I accept that? It’s important to understand the value that you add to a workplace and celebrate this”.

As CEO of Holdsworth Community

What’s something you wish people knew about working for a charity?

“There’s always more work to be done! Fortunately, the NFP sector is filled with highly motivated people who care passionately about the people and community they are working with. They are truly amazing and work hard for so little money, sometimes none at all, and often on non-tangible things that are challenging to measure or quantify”.

What does the theme of International Day of People with Disability ‘leave no one behind’means to Holdsworth Community?

“At Holdsworth, we’re all about not labelling people. We have the approach that it’s just a group of people going out for the day, doing what they love doing or learning something. And we include everyone. An example of this is our afterschool care (for children and teens with a disability) where we welcome our whole community to come and play – because the playground is for anyone”.

On Talking to Kids about Disability

“I’ve spoken to my kids about how everybody is different and that some people might have specific things that they like, want or need as to engage or play with you, and it’s ok to ask and find out about those things. There’s also lots of great material, cartoons, books, videos and resources.

The best way to get to know Holdsworth is to get involved with our community organisation, the different people who make up our community otherwise there will be a lot of assumptions about what we do”.

“The magic is that you can only experience, learn by doing”.


Author: Kathryn Brooks

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