56. Kristy Bryans

21 Jul

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Ever since she was young, Kristy Bryans knew she wanted to be an artist. Now 20-years-old, she’s beginning to fulfill that dream.

However, she hasn’t got to where she is today without self doubt.

“Since I was little, I always said that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I kind of lost sight of that a little bit when I went to high school, I thought ‘oh maybe I should do psychology, I’d be good at that’,” she said.

Kristy said her school was not overly encouraging of folio subjects.

“They said ‘you’re going to stress yourself out, you have to get good marks, do Maths and other subjects like that’,” she said.

“It got to the point where it started sounding reasonable to do something reasonable.”

But with an artistic family behind her, and a constant drive to create pieces of art, Kristy eventually realised she had to follow her dreams.

“When I got to year 11, I was like ‘nah stuff Maths, stuff Science, I’m going to do folio subjects’. In year 12, I did a piece that got a lot of social media attention, and from that I thought ‘yeah I think I still want to be an artist’,” she said.

This piece of art may be recognisable to some Banyule residents; it was used to advertise the 2015 YouthFest.

“I posted a picture of it to Facebook and it started to get a lot of likes from people I didn’t even know, and then Banyule contacted me asking if they could use it, and Nillumbik asked to put it in an exhibition, it was in the paper to advertise my school, it was in newsletters, and suddenly it was just all over the place,” Kristy said.

“It was the first real piece of art that I was proud of. It made me think that this was something I could actually do and get recognised for.”

Kristy describes her art as abstract, experimental and modern; she likes to use lots of different colours and shapes.

“Art is so progressive, and ever-changing, so I’m still trying to work out my style. I’m still trying to discover myself and my art,” she said.

“When I was first exploring my style I had insomnia, so it was my sleeping problems and my dreams that would inspire my art. Now I really like looking up resin art, which is art made out of liquid glass. I also like looking into other artists’ stories, and what inspires them. Everyday I’m on my Instagram checking out lots of different artists.”

Kristy says she’s a perfectionist with her art. Some pieces take over 30 hours to put together.

“My biggest one took me 50-70 hours, I spent a whole week not moving, just sleeping, eating and drawing,” she said.

“I don’t think I’m ever 100 per cent happy with my art. There are always things that I could change, but it reaches a point where I just have to accept that it’s done.”

While admitting it might sound clichéd, Kristy says that practice really does make perfect.

“It is natural ability too, but every time I make something new, I think that my art is getting better and better from doing more and more different pieces,” she said.

Kristy is currently studying communication and design at RMIT University. She says that the course is quite broad; there are illustrators, typographers, photographers, graphic designers, web designers, and more.

“Through my work at Banyule, I realised that there’s so much opportunity for work, even just in the community. I’m just an illustrator, and I’m getting work as an artist, and there are so many more talented people that could be getting work too,” she said.

This inspired Kristy to create an artists collaborative group called Ink Design Solutions.

“I put out a call in my course for people interested in being a part of a group to source work,” she said.

Kristy now works as the middleman for the six people involved in Ink Design Solutions. Not only does she source work for them, she also teaches them how to quote, how to invoice, and how to look for work themselves.

“We called up people we knew [to find work], so the Council and local businesses, and I put the word out on social media.”

Since its inception, Ink Design Solutions has created countless logos for local businesses, helped companies design their websites, and helped at local events doing face painting and henna.

“We’re getting work in every field.”

Kristy says that getting experience in the industry is incredibly important, particularly given there’s a massive surplus of artists in the world right now.

“It is a really hard industry to break into. Helping these people out is so important to me because I know there are so many passionate people out there that may have to turn to other careers because they can’t find work in their field,” she said.

“If our youth is being productive, then imagine what our world will look like in the years to come.”

As well as running Ink Design Solutions and going to university, Kristy works two jobs and runs various workshops at local libraries. She says she sometimes struggles to find the time to work on her art recreationally.

“I did start something yesterday, I only had half an hour before work, but I sat down and thought ‘I’ve got to draw something otherwise it’s never going to happen’,” she said.

“I’d love to be creating more, so this year I’m going to focus on setting aside a free day where I do nothing but art.”

With so much artistic potential, and a passionate drive to help others, what does the future hold for Kristy Bryans?

“I would love to be a freelance artist/designer/illustrator. Working freelance and earning good money to do it would be awesome,” she said.

“My great –grandmother was a successful artist, and when she became successful, she opened up her own arts community to help other artists. I’m now living in the house she used to live in, and in the house has the art studio she used to work in, and I think that’s really inspired my long-term goals.”

Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Sean Porter

 

55. Kate James

8 Jun

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Kate James is a strong, vibrant, open-minded 25-year-old, and a self-proclaimed lover of cheeseburgers. Kate loves to travel, listen to music, and enjoys the brighter side of life – finding any opportunity for a good story and a laugh.

Kate is a Youth Programs Officer at the Banyule Youth Services. She’s been in the industry for around four years, and says she’s so far loved every minute of it. She says she never wakes up in the morning dreading coming to work; she’s always excited to see what new challenges she may have to face that day.

“Every single day I get up in the morning and look forward to going to work. I love everything about youth culture and the spirit young people have,” she says.

“Getting to support a young person along their journey means a lot to me each time I work with someone.”

Part of Kate’s role involves going around to local schools to speak to students about body image and gender equality. In these discussion sessions, she explores how society can pressure women to look a particular way, or to act a particular way. She admits that this can make being a woman difficult; however she’s confident that these challenges can be overcome.

“There is a massive buzz at the moment amongst young women I work with from early secondary school onwards around changing the way society views them,” she says.

“I feel that girls are becoming more empowered to discuss what affects their perceptions of themselves and to say ‘actually, that stuff really does not work for me and I don’t want to feel bad about myself just because of what the media or the internet tells me’.”

Kate initially wanted to be a primary school teacher, however after finishing year 12 she instead did a one-year course in disability studies. After starting to work in the disability field, she became more interested in advocacy so she completed a Diploma course in community services; this is what inspired her to work with young people.

Kate says she has no plans of leaving her current position any time soon. She loves working with her team at Banyule Youth Services; she describes the group as extremely creative, talented, inspirational, and always putting young people first.

She says a highlight of her job is being able to talk with young people directly. She loves being able to hear their stories, and to help guide them through any challenges they may be facing.

“[I enjoy] the little things, like having a really awesome conversation with young people in a school, or when a young person achieves a goal they have been working towards. Seeing a young person become empowered to do what’s best for them – it’s such a privilege to be a part of,” she says.

By speaking to young girls at schools, Kate hopes she can encourage them to feel comfortable in their own skin. She wants these girls to walk away from her presentations feeling strong and empowered, and not intimidated by the opposite sex. She wants them to love themselves for who they are.

“The everyBODY Banyule workshops aim to challenge the stereotypes, get young people thinking about how social media affects them, and most importantly, just allow them to chat about what they feel causes negative body image.”

Kate grew up in the local area, and went to school at Montmorency College. She has a large tight-knit extended family, and is particularly close with her parents and brother. Her family has supported her with everything she’s pursued. She says her mum constantly reminds her that “she has a gift of being able to communicate with other people”.

Kate says she loves being around people, and in particular fellow women. She’s a world-class listener, and is always up for a chat.

Kate is currently studying at university one afternoon a week to get a degree in youth work.

“I studied at TAFE originally to get into the field, which set me up with some great skills at first. Now a few years into my career, I am at Uni to get a higher qualification,” she says.

“I really love learning and enjoy studying, but also think it’s important to have work and life experience along the way to add to study.”

Kate was nominated for the ‘Victorian Young Achiever’ award for her talks in communication, inside and outside social media boundaries. Kate says that she is “extremely grateful and thankful for the nomination”.

She’s incredibly modest, and when anyone in the workplace brings up her nomination, she squirms in the corner and tells them to keep it hush.

However, her nomination is a big deal, and a reflection of her achievements to date. These achievements are definitely something to be proud of.

Words: Ruby Colley & Joely Mitchell

Photo: Sean Porter

54. Hani Qaafow

16 May

HaniWithin an instant of sitting down with her, I am surrounded by the bright and bubbly personality that is Hani Qaafow. Hani exudes an easy confidence as she laughingly states, “I’m your typical girl, I guess”. She loves “hanging out with friends” and was also raised by a “family [that are] all into sports. All of us were in sports … I did little athletics, basketball.”

Despite her modesty, Hani has exceeded the title of “typical girl” through her contributions to her community.

When I ask what first inspired her to become a youth worker, Hani tells me, “Look, I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t really know that I wanted to be a youth worker … I kept changing courses. I went from science to applied science, thinking oh my God, what am I supposed to do … you always want to help people, be there for anyone going through certain stuff. I feel like that’s what worked [to] my strengths. … I always go that extra yard to help people – this just formalised it.”

“I did my first placements at Banyule and I got to work on a few different projects … Eventually, I got casual work at Banyule. I was also fortunate enough to get to do my second placement here. So then, I formed the AWAG group.”

I quiz Hani further about this interesting organisation, the African Women’s Action Group.

“They’re the local Somali girls here. It’s the older generation working with the younger girls … They’re so inspiring! We formed the group from the Youth Summit, because they found [there was a] gap between young Somali girls and their interaction with the community … We played around with it, came up with the name. So we are currently called the African Women’s Action Group.”

“Initially, we used to meet up every fortnight, [to] think about projects. We went on camp, we organised basketball tournaments, we helped with the younger girls playing soccer at Olympic Village as well. A lot of people think of it as you teaching people. But I have learned so much from them.”

Hani and her own experiences helped form part of her motivation to get involved with AWAG. Hani arrived in Australia at the age of 1. She says she “did school here [in Australia]. I went to an Islamic school from Year 7 to Year 9.” She then moved “to Macleod in Year 10”.

“I grew up here, so I can relate to the girls. I feel like they have me to turn to and me to go to. Local government can be hard to approach, but if there is someone they can relate to, then they voice their opinions. And often, it’s doable. All that is needed is for them to announce [what is needed]”.

As Hani explains more about the goals of AWAG, it becomes clear that they are nothing short of inspiring.

“The main aim [of AWAG] was to inspire the younger girls to do more with their lives, to have careers, have families, learn how to juggle the daily life of being a Muslim and an African within this community. There are a lot of layers to their lives … they face a lot of things, such as their home responsibilities, they juggle uni, work. It’s hard – it actually gets very hard.”

“Another thing we wanted to focus on is mental health, because it’s not highly recognised within our community. A lot of people think of it as shame. You won’t see a young person seeking help, you won’t see the older people recognising it … So it’s about speaking out, not being ashamed, [or] hiding it. A lot of girls wanted to speak out and make that recognised. It’s about awareness, so then girls will know where to seek help.”

“One of the other things that we focused on was sports. We formed the big basketball tournament, because there are not so many opportunities for young Muslim females to play sport … I personally think it’s a great developmental step. The boys can just get up and join any team, but we don’t have that. So what we did was organise the basketball tournament and we had guests from local clubs attend, to see if there were opportunities for them to get involved there.”

Upon the differences in the opportunities women face compared to men, Hani states that it is not always a negative thing and that religious barriers are not necessarily bad, but they must be dealt with.

“If the boys want to play soccer, they have less cultural things to consider, but that’s not to say that we can’t be involved too. For example, the boys have a local swimming place to go to and we [the girls] now have that too. So I feel like the Banyule community put thought into that. Acknowledging that females can’t go to a local pool to swim, they said let’s consider their cultural barriers, address that and make it accessible. I feel like we are not disadvantaged, because it can happen, like with the swimming and the basketball, but us females don’t voice our opinions nearly enough … It is just a matter of saying, these are our barriers but this is what we want. How do we get there?”

When asked about how the group is going, Hani replies with a grin and makes it clear that the work of AWAG is already taking effect in her community. “I feel like the girls are a lot more involved in their community. I feel like they are taking responsibility for what they want from their community – they will speak loudly and be very opinionated! … It’s driven by them, which is great to see.”

“It has broadened our views on the status of Muslim, young females from the community … they are so driven. It has changed the whole dynamic of where Somali young females are headed, compared to the older generation when our parents came here and it was all about settlement, [providing] comfort. They’ve done the hard work, it’s our chance to run with it, to create stuff for the younger girls.”

“I think the whole point is to lead by example. I love it. I absolutely love it, because we sit down and it’s like, each of us have different views and a direction that we want to go and we are not going alone. If we move as a community as a whole, I feel like we can do bigger and better things.”

Through AWAG, Hani hopes to create “a go-to place” where girls are encouraged to “seek assistance with anything from employment and careers, education, and mental health.”

Education for girls is also of top importance in Hani’s eyes.

“As my dad would say, educate a woman and you educate a whole household. We were all brought up with education as priority and nothing else would get in the way of that.”

Her experience in Somalia helped emphasise the importance of education. “I have been to Somalia. It was bitter and sweet. I don’t remember leaving when I was younger, so going back there… it’s so war torn. You see people living with nothing. I feel like it inspired me to do more. That’s probably why I encourage a lot of females to get an education under their belt because that is what our [home] country is lacking.”

Here, women are doing everything, they are juggling it all and I think that is just incredible.”

As for the future, it seems that a lot lies ahead for this vibrant and enthused person sitting across from me.

“Personally, I want to travel to all different places. I feel very sheltered, because I wasn’t exposed to much growing up.”

Hani also wants to become fully qualified, as she hopes to be able to work in a school one day, in order to become “someone that students can relate to.”

The message that Hani wishes to pass down to girls she works with is a positive one. “I would say to every female, not just Somali females, that they should work with their strengths. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing – as long you are doing what makes you happy. Set goals and have aims in life.”

Words: Annabelle Pendlebury

Photo: Sean Porter

 

53. Ben Smith

22 Apr

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Ben Smith’s motivation to volunteer is simple.

“See a need, fill a need,” the 22-year-old says.

Up to two times a week, Ben volunteers at Boots For All, a not-for-profit organisation that collects and distributes second-hand sporting equipment.

“Boots For All is a sports recycling place, we gather used equipment that’s still in good condition, clean it up and donate it to people in need,” Ben says.

Ben got involved with the organisation after they visited his local football club about three years ago.

“I came down to football training one day, and there were these random people washing boots outside the club. I asked them what they were doing, and they explained that they were washing the boots, recycling them and giving them to people in need,” he says.

“That made perfect sense to me, so I just got involved from there.”

The group, which consists of about 30-40 people, collects football boots, runners, cricket bats, tennis balls, basketballs, and any other unwanted equipment.

“We have donation bins and donation partners, so at schools and sporting clubs. They often come forward, or we go to them, and they give us any excess sporting equipment that they don’t need.”

There is a Boots For All store, located on Sherbourne Road in Briar Hill, where people can come and purchase the recycled boots for as little as $5.

Ben says it’s frustrating to see how much sporting equipment can be wasted.

“It’s unbelievable the amount of equipment that’s not used, and just thrown out. And some of it’s in really good condition, almost new,” he says.

Ben says he’s always amazed to see how many people know about the organisation.

“It’s not really big on social media, it’s more spread through word of mouth. I’m surprised how many other communities know about us, I don’t understand how the word gets out.”

Boots For All has a few big named ambassadors, including Carlton FC and Essendon FC players, and The Biggest Loser trainer Tiffany Hall.

The organisation aims to break down barriers that may prevent young people from participating in sport. Ben believes that by providing vulnerable Australians with cheap and accessible equipment, they’ll be more able to get involved.

“I’ve been around sport all my life, and I know the impact it has on people’s lives, especially those that can’t afford to play.”

Ben admits that he was a hyperactive kid, which is probably why he played so much sport.

“I’ve played far too many sports over my lifetime, football, soccer, swimming, cricket, squash and gymnastics, just to name a few.”

Ben says it’s incredibly rewarding to see kids playing and enjoying sport while using equipment sourced from Boots For All.

“A lot of kids up in the Northern Territory don’t have access to football boots, shoes, balls, anything. They run around bare foot, kicking old footballs in the sand. We got funding to send them up some boots, and we later got a video of them playing around with the equipment, and it was amazing,” he says.

“I’ve seen a few local examples too. There are some single-parent families, with 4-5 kids, who just can’t afford to pay $200 for a pair of boots. Every now and again you see the kids wearing the boots, it’s really good to see.”

Ben is also passionate about the environment. He recently completed a Bachelor of Environmental Management, Sustainability and Policy Management at Deakin University, and is currently part of the natural resource management team at Melbourne Water.

“We go around removing weeds, rubbish, cleaning, surveying, planting animal identification throughout the catchments, making sure the diversity is high, and ensuring that ecosystem services, like water purification, are maintained throughout our water system,” he says.

Ben also volunteers at the Anderson’s Creek Land Care Group.

“It’s a local group that works to clean up Anderson’s Creek in Warrandyte. We do the same as Melbourne Water, but specifically around the creek,” he says.

Thanks to the hard work of the group, who plant plants and pull weeds, there’s been massive improvement to the creek and its surrounding environment.

“Growing up I was always out in the backyard, playing in the environment, so I saw what it can be, in comparison to what it is now,” Ben says.

“I just can’t believe how some people treat a local park, or a local creek. It’s unbelievable.”

Ben says that with work, and volunteering at these two organisations, he’s barely able to squeeze in anything else.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to find time to volunteer, especially fitting it around work and life in general.”

He says there are many ways you can volunteer with an organisation.

“You can either be a bit of an outsider that comes in every now and again to help, or you can get drawn in and become part of the major system,” he says.

“It can be very demanding and time consuming.”

But Ben says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t think much will change in ten years. I’ll stay in the same area, do the same things, and I’ll definitely still be volunteering.”

He’ll probably also remain as modest as he is today.

When asked why he thought he was nominated for Banyule100, his response was simply “I don’t know”.

Hopefully after reading this profile, he’ll see that he is overwhelmingly deserving of such recognition.

He saw a need, and he filled the need.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Sean Porter

52. Diamond Valley Rotaract

23 Mar

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Working tirelessly to help eradicate polio, providing young people with leadership development opportunities and running the Eltham Fair Battle of the Bands are merely a handful of the impressive accomplishments of the Diamond Valley Rotaract Club.

The Diamond Valley Rotaract Club is part of Rotary International for young people aged 18 to 30 years old. Rotary International is a worldwide organisation that enables its members to work towards positive and constructive change in their communities and the wider world, while simultaneously helping them to develop their personal and professional skills.

Katherine Shields, the current Diamond Valley President, sheds some light on the goals and ideals of Rotary.

“In Australia, the big way that we break it down is under three key headings, which are ‘Help, Learn and Enjoy’. For our club, we want to be a community where people feel included, have fun and can be actively involved in our community – locally, nationally and internationally.”

Its benefits are numerous, for as Katherine describes it is “an opportunity to be a part of a group of like-minded young people, who are passionate about lots of different things but are able to channel that passion towards projects, fundraising and events.”

She says the Club has “six areas of focus. [These include] child and parental health, literacy and education, water, sanitation, peace and conflict resolution… and all of the things we’re involved in have some reference to that. Our club does a lot of fundraising… We’ve done fundraising for things like the Cathy Freeman Foundation, which supports communities on Palm Island. That relates quite strongly to literacy, because there is one of the lowest literacy rates in the world on Palm Island.”

Katherine then proudly explains how Rotaracters from all around the world are playing a crucial role in helping to eradicate Polio.

“One major thing that we’re really excited about at Rotary is the eradication of Polio from the world. Rotary have been involved for nearly thirty years now… They’re down to just one country [where the virus is present]. It is believed that this year will be the last year that there will be a case, which means that in three years time the World Health Organisation can declare the world to be polio-free.”

Katherine explains “[Rotary] have contributed to this in so many ways, through significant funding and through raising awareness and campaigning. They’ve played a huge role in getting some big names on board as advocates helping advertise the ‘Let’s End Polio Now’ campaign… Including Jackie Chan!”

“They’ve also provided huge numbers of volunteers to go and do vaccines all around the world… Hundreds of thousands of rotary volunteers have been going around and vaccinating as many hundreds of children as they can. So we’ve seen some hugely significant hands-on work from Rotary.”

Katherine then tells me about some of the other projects that the Rotaract Club have been responsible for.

“A personal highlight would have to be a number of years ago after the Black Saturday bushfires, when we decided to hold a knit-a-thon in Diamond Creek for people to come along for the whole day and knit, as well as creating a drop off point for donations.”

She says happily, “We ended up with over 300 knitted items to donate. That went to people who had been affected by the fires but also to homeless people for during the winter. That was a great highlight, just being that place for people to participate and get involved. A lot of people had never even knitted before and they were able to learn!”

The Rotaract is run entirely by volunteers. In exchange for their tireless work, the Rotaract provides those involved with a fantastic opportunity to form new friendships, liaise and network with other people and to undergo professional development.

“Rotaract in Australia has something called an ‘MDIO’, which stands for ‘Multi-District Information Organisation’. What they do is help to provide and disseminate information across multiple clubs. They run training for us every year, at a regional level. For everyone who is a board member, we spend two days doing standardised training on things like conflict resolution, leadership training, marketing, social media tools, and how to identify the skillset of your board members.”

Katherine mentions that members are offered training in order to develop valuable skill sets.

“We also run an annual conference, which is in a different city each year and again we have a number of guest speakers who talk on a variety of topics. We learn skills such as how to write a resumé, do well at a job interview, how to manage stress, how to maintain a work-life balance, how to run a meeting.”

Professional development is another benefit, according to Katherine.

“The specific roles like treasurer or secretary also get together and learn about how to actually be a treasurer, how you manage accounts, or a budget and for secretaries, how to write up an agenda and minutes for a meeting. So there are lots of great opportunities that allow our members to take on different roles within the club.”

“Another great benefit is learning about event management. We run the Youth Stage at the Eltham Rotary Town Festival. People involved in that are in charge of liaising with sound and tech guys, liaising with different bands and locking them in to perform, organising advertising, organising the roster of volunteers and budgeting. They are basically learning how to actually run an event from the initial stages of brainstorming ideas right up to executing it in the final stages. So there are heaps and heaps of really great learning opportunities.”

Katherine explains that the Youth Stage at the Eltham Festival “is a highlight for us. A big part of why we do the Eltham Battle of the Bands is that there is a lot of brilliant local talent in that area. We predominantly stick with high school students, because we’re aware that they don’t get many opportunities to perform… they’re restricted to age appropriate venues. So for us, we love getting to see just how talented they are and they get an opportunity to perform. The winners actually get recording time, which is fantastic.”

Members can get involved in projects that range from the local level, to a national and even international level. Thanks to the Rotaract Club, “there has been a huge impact [on the local community].”

“Something people often notice is also the impact on the people that are involved. Everyone in our club is from our local community, with maybe a couple of exceptions. We’ve seen heaps of people come through who have taken on roles in the club and taken part in events. We’ve had people turn up to the Club as a bit of a quiet, shy person and then they are soon taking on the role of treasurer or secretary. Two years later they’re becoming president and conducting speeches in a room full of 80 people… So I think that’s a huge thing.”

“I guess the other thing would be funding and assistance,” says Katherine.

“We really like to focus on local organisations, so every year we give to the Diamond Valley Food Share. We’ve also been big supporters of Kalparrin [an early intervention centre in Greensborough for children with additional needs] and our involvement with Eltham Festival is also pretty significant. Plus, there are other little things along the way like being involved in local tree planting. We’ve been going for seven years and the money we have raised would be in the tens of thousands, and most of that has gone back to our local community.”

While Katherine’s presidency will finish at the end of the financial year, she has high hopes for the future of the club.

“I think our hopes are to continue to increase our membership. We’d love to get another club started in the area, maybe somewhere like at La Trobe or RMIT University because we know there are just so many people who would love to be involved from around there. I think also we would love to see the members of our club getting more involved, feeling more confident and learning more skills. Also, just continuing our significant contribution to our local communities, through fundraising and awareness-raising events.”

“We also hope to get some guest speakers in, looking at issues like domestic violence, which we know is a really big issue. We’re also interested in the ‘Towards Zero’ campaign, which is the TAC campaign for zero road deaths, and would like to do information evenings at schools around the area. These are just some of the things we’re dreaming up at the moment!”

There are clearly many great things in store for the Diamond Valley Rotaract Club, as they continue to do amazing work that will greatly benefit our wider community.

Words: Annabelle Pendlebury

Picture: Sean Porter

 

 

 

 

 

 

51. Heather Douglas

29 Feb

51 HeatherShe’s worked at Montmorency Secondary College for over 30 years, and has no desire to leave any time soon. She is respected, loved and admired by the entire community, but mainly by her coworkers and students.

Heather Douglas is the school’s student wellbeing coordinator, a position she naturally fell into after years as a legal studies and business teacher.

She always had an interest in the lives and futures of her students. About 15 years ago, she played an instrumental role in the implementation of VCAL at Montmorency.

VCAL, which stands for the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning, is a hands-on alternative to VCE for year 11 and 12 students.

“When VCAL started up, I ran information sessions for parents, and they were always very hesitant about it, they’d say that they wanted their child to follow the academic stream. But it’s about the person and what they want to do, if they’re not interested in school, and they’re forced to go there, you’re really just setting them up for failure,” Heather said.

“I’d say to parents that I have two university degrees, and if your son did a building apprenticeship, and got a good job, he’ll be earning ten times more than I ever will.”

Heather said that in the first few years, the number of VCAL students was small, but these gradually grew.

“We now run one at year 11 and one at year 12, and we only run one because we cap it, and it’s always full so we have people on the waiting list, and people wanting to come from other schools.”

Heather taught the personal development part of the VCAL course. She said she dealt with students who required a lot of support, and who often came from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is what inspired her to apply for the student wellbeing coordinator position.

“I have three children of my own, and at the time, my criteria [to decide if the job would work] was if I could sit and listen to people, and hear their stories without crying, then I’d be okay, and if I could make sure that I don’t take the burden of these stories home with me, then I’d also be okay,” she said.

“So I listened to some stories, and didn’t end up crying, and at home they said that I didn’t bring it home, so I thought I’d apply for the position, and I got it.”

Eleven years later, and she’s become a confidant and a supporter for many students at Montmorency Secondary. However, she does more for these students than most would imagine.

“I do a lot of financial stuff for disadvantaged kids and families, so if there are families who are struggling to afford uniforms or books, I tell them to drop by and I can help them out. In some cases I’ll pay for books out of my own budget if I think it’s really necessary,” she said.

“I also always keep food in my office for kids who come to school without having had breakfast, or bringing lunch. I just go down to Aldi and out of my school budget buy some two minute noodles, muesli bars, drinking chocolate, cheese sticks, and things like that.”

She also makes “wet packs” for students who may not be very hygienic.

“I’ll buy bags and fill them with soap and face washers, deodorants, razors, new socks and things like that. I give them to students who I think need them because sometimes they may not have those resources at home.”

She runs a weekly breakfast club, where the Salvation Army come down and offer free breakfasts, runs courses for parents, organises group activities like going down to the Eltham Leisure Centre, and even teaches a VCE subject.

“I work full-time, so I’m here all the time. It’s annoying sometimes teaching a class, because I might have a whole heap of things to do, and then I’ve got to go to class, but it’s also pretty nice to go into a classroom and not worry too much about other people’s problems because I’ve got my teacher hat on now,” Heather said.

“Sometimes I even fill in for the principal’s class if they are out. I’ve been here so long, I know the ropes so well.”

While Heather has a lot to offer, her main role is as school counselor.

“Kids can come and talk to me anytime they want, but I am a teacher, so I am obliged to mandatory report where necessary, but I’ll always tell the kids that,” she said.

She said that a diverse variety of topics are covered in counseling sessions, including home issues, school issues, bullying, drugs and alcohol, and so on.

“I know that not every kid will like me, but one thing that is very important is confidentiality. If you go and tell people what you’ve heard from the kids, you’ll just lose their trust straight away,” she said.

In any given year, Heather estimates that she deals with at least 20 per cent of the students at Montmorency. She’s accompanied kids to court, been to their houses, and has worked closely with the Department of Human Services and Berry Street.

“You’ll remember the Swanston Street wall collapse, those two students were our kids, and that happened over the Easter school holidays, so the Principal and other staff ,including myself, basically worked during the holidays inviting kids down, offering counseling, running BBQs, and then attending the funeral.”

Heather beams with pride and passion for Montmorency, a school she was allocated to after she finished her university studies.

“Because I live over in the east, Montmorency is close enough for me to get here easily everyday, but far enough away so that I don’t have to run into students at shopping centres during the holidays!”

Even though she’s worked at the same school for many years, she feels as though she’s reinvented herself so many times with so many new positions, that she’s never felt stuck in one place.

“I’ve been a classroom teacher, been on all of the committees, been a level coordinator, then I introduced VCAL, then I became student wellbeing coordinator, and that’s a completely different role,” Heather said.

However, she said she’s done reinventing herself.

“I think I’m at the stage in my career where I doubt I’ll reinvent myself again. I’ll probably do my swan song from this position. Exactly when that will be, I don’t know. I’m happy here.”

 

Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Sean Porter

50. Omar and Saad

16 Feb

Omar 3

Omar and Saad are not just Syrian Refugees. They are also not just numbers, statistics or policy dilemmas.

Saad is quick to laugh with an infectious cheeky grin. He is warm, polite and wickedly intelligent. When Omar is speaking, he becomes animated with enthusiasm and eagerly asks for my opinions. When I ask both a question, they effortlessly bounce the response between each other – a trait of their closeness as brothers. Omar, Saad and I are sharing a meal together. I am about to hear their story. ‘I am completely open, feel free to ask me anything you want’ Omar tells me.

Three hours pass and I find myself in awe of their zest for life in the face of all of the violence and trauma they have endured. Omar and Saad have lost loved ones, friends, pets and seen their community decimated. They show me photos of their community as it stands now. What remains is a blanket of rubble and jagged building edges and outlines. Saad points out where theirs and their grandmother’s houses once stood.

For a moment I am building it all up again in my mind as Omar and Saad reminisce over how vibrant their town was. They tell me of their involvement with Scouts Syria, which was once the lifeblood of their community and their second family. Before the war, Omar and Saad participated in Scouts “Clean Up” days, tree planting around the city and events raising awareness about the dangers of smoking. Omar pulls out his phone and shows me photos of old Scouting friends and leaders. Everyone in the photos are laughing, smiling or doing something with their Scouts group. Most of the friends in these photos have now been killed. Their Scout Hall has been targeted and burnt.

This is not a story of sadness and heartbreak though. It is the first chapter in a chronicle of powerful acts of commitment to community. When protests broke out in Syria, Omar and Saad rallied in the streets with fellow community members calling for a better life. They continued this for as long as possible until Omar was shot five days before his year 12 exams. Incredibly, he persevered studying through his recovery and passed despite heavily losing marks. The brothers also pursued other avenues for assisting those affected by the conflict. Through Scouts Syria they prepared food parcels and supplies for internally displaced people moving through Syria and living in the local school. This was despite the rapidly increasing hostility of the situation and the constant threat to their own lives. Omar also returned to University for a short time after his activism and the threat of arrest prevented him from attending. He was eventually captured, tortured and forced to listen to his friends endure the same treatment, ‘I never knew that humans could deal with such intense pain and suffering’. He was one of the only survivors.

Saad 2

Omar and Saad’s family escaped Syria by travelling through Lebanon, Egypt and then on to Melbourne. Omar describes the journey as ‘long and scary, we were almost caught more times than I can count.’ When they arrived safely in Egypt, Omar and Saad received a call from their Scout leader who ‘thanked God’ they were safe and left them with a final instruction. Omar recalls this in a video documenting their experience by Scouts Victoria,

‘He charged me with a simple request that I would never forget. He told me to study hard, to do my best in everything I do, to do good everywhere I go, and to one day return home so we could meet all together in the Scout Hall again. Unfortunately I cannot keep my promise. He was killed by a bomb a few months later. This made me more determined than ever that I would join Scouting again’.

Omar and Saad continue to honour this request by carrying on a legacy of community leadership. After settling into school and work in Melbourne, Omar and Saad began serving the community through the Cleve Cole Rover Group in Watsonia at their earliest opportunity. ‘Scouting is the number one way we could give back to the community’ Saad tells me.

This was despite very limited knowledge of English language or Australian culture. They were more familiar with Australian history learned at school in Syria. Omar pauses while telling me this as his mouth curves into the same cheeky grin as Saad’s, ‘We knew you had a really big rabbit problem though’. Bellows of laughter engulf the room.

It has been just over a year since Omar and Saad have been in Melbourne and they now speak fluent English. They engage me in fascinating discussions about Australian politics and community life while we eat our dinner. The reason they are able to do so with such fluency is because they have been watching Parliament Question Time since arriving to improve their English skills and learn about Australian politics. I stare incredulously at both of them.

Omar and Saad have since participated in a number of community projects with Scouts Victoria. This is driven by an unwavering belief beautifully articulated by Omar, ‘If there is no community, there is no life’. Saad adds to this, ‘The community raised you and made you who you are… they’ve had a really important role in your character and in your life’.

The latest Scout event was the Australia Day celebrations. Saad beams, ‘We did an Australia day celebration last month – I was holding the flags! Have you seen the photo?!’.

They were eager to work and study after arriving in Melbourne. Omar tells me he applied for two hundred and twenty jobs when he first arrived and is now finally working two jobs alongside studying for his Bachelor of Business. He is also preparing to embark on a speaking program where he will share his story with schools and community groups as part of the Banyule Youth Services School Speakers Program. Saad is completing his final VCE year and hopes to study Biomedicine in the future.

Omar and Saad’s story has spread far and wide after they shared it at a recent Scouts Victoria conference. They have been acknowledged in Parliament by Greens member Adam Bandt and have received a call from the Prime Minister’s office wishing them well. They have also been featured on The Project, John Faine’s ABC radio Conversation Hour and in the Herald Sun.

I ask them if it’s difficult to continue re-telling their story to multiple audiences and media outlets. They agree it is. But they are resolute in their commitment to the power of awareness. ‘If you raise awareness in your community…you educate… you raise the human capital of your community. When you raise human capital… you raise everything’. Critical to this awareness is an understanding that refugees are not all the same – they are just like you and me. Not just numbers. People, with an incredible story to tell.

‘We are not terrorists. We are doctors, we are lawyers, we are teachers, we are engineers, we are businessmen. We are Scouts.’

Photos: Sean Porter

Words: Stephanie Livingstone

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