90. Kevin Mao

28 Jan

There isn’t much Kevin Mao hasn’t done. Since graduating Dux of Ivanhoe Grammar in 2017 with an impressive ATAR of 99.80, Kevin hasn’t let anything (including the ongoing pandemic) stand in his way.

Kevin is a published scientist, passionate community volunteer, consultant, peer mentor, student councillor, and a St John’s First Aid responder. Most of his leadership and volunteering experiences are connected to Health Futures Australia, UN Youth Australia and 180 Degrees Consulting.

However, Kevin didn’t immediately find his path in life. Culturally, there were two choices for smart, high-achieving kids– studying Commerce or Medicine. Kevin picked Medicine because he “likes science and got the grades for it. My parents actually didn’t want me to medicine as it is ‘too hard’ and ‘you won’t have a life’. But I thought Medicine sounded interesting.”

Six months into Medicine at Monash University, Kevin changed his mind and switched to a Bachelor of Biomedicine at Melbourne University instead. “I was 18 and I was doing medicine. I didn’t know if I could be a doctor and that’s the whole course, there was no leeway.”

Looking down the academic pathway that was prescribed for him at such a young age prompted Kevin to make a change. “Just ‘cause you’re good at something, and just ‘cause you like it, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Life always finds stuff you can do” Being open to new experiences and allowing yourself to change your mind provides greater depth and experience.

By switching paths at 18, Kevin found himself in a new community, and exposed to new opportunities. Studying at the University of Melbourne was an excellent decision for Kevin, it allowed him to have a more holistic university experience than Medicine would have permitted.

He credits his switch to Biomedicine for allowing him to have a multidisciplinary approach to tackling issues he is passionate about. “I would get bored if I spent all my time approaching problems from the same direction. Instead, I have this depth where I feel like I’m doing public health in many different directions”. Kevin aims to tackle problems with his scientific, consultancy and social skills.

“I need to exercise my brain, and keep things varied. In today’s society, you’re told you need to learn more, you need to get more knowledge. But you just do the same steps over, and over, again. You pipette the same liquid, to the same concentration, to get the same result. Things don’t change unless you stitch the future together.”

His volunteering work with various organisations, such as Health Futures Australia of which he is now the President, enabled him to see a different side of Australia. HFA seeks to “combat existing health inequities”, and one of their many programs provides nutrition-based school programs to kids and their parents.

“The first time I went to Daylesford not as a tourist, I was working in a school kitchen to provide healthy food. We did a survey asking, ‘What do you eat?’. What caught my eye was that the canteen didn’t serve vegetables, except for potatoes in chip form! I felt really privileged cause my school provided salads, wraps, etc. [In Daylesford] they have a lot of farms – acres filled with organic vegetables, but had minimal connection to the food they actually ate.”

Kevin’s volunteering projects kept him connected to public health in a more personable, community-driven way. “That’s what’s the most important thing, is meeting people, and making a tangible difference.”

This isn’t to say you can’t make a tangible difference in research or academic pathways. “Research has these really big, long-term goals that you work towards. And when you achieve something, you celebrate!”

Kevin completed an internship in a structural biology lab at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research “looking at structures of cancer proteins.” And he is now starting placements a Doctor of Medicine at Melbourne University. When I asked what made him return to Medicine, his answer was one word – people.

“[Medicine] is probably one of the only jobs I could actually do where I make a direct impact in somebody’s life. What they care about is whether you’re a good person, and if you can get them back to their daily life. And that’s why I want to do it.”

Kevin’s advice to young people, and others looking to make a difference within their communities, is not to do everything. “First, focus on your values” to find something you are passionate about that aligns with what you believe in. “Focus your energy and time there, and find a way for your work, your study, whatever to reflect those values.”

“Structure everything in your life around your values. Say your goal is to be a doctor, you must do certain steps. But if you think of your values, say education, and weave it in that way, and it exposes you to so many more opportunities.”

Ultimately, Kevin’s primary value, above curiosity and innovation, is family. His parents emigrated from China more than 35 years ago and many sacrifices to provide for their children. His parents’ actions, and a strong cultural emphasis on family values, gave Kevin a strong sense of community and love.

“When everything else is gone, the people who are going to be there for you are your family. So, take time to love them.”

Words: Lucy Olsen

Picture: supplied


89. Libby Fisher

22 Nov

Libby Fisher is a force to be reckoned with.

Since 2016, the now 15 year-old has raised over $50,000 for wildlife conservation, under the umbrella of her initiative Libby’s Koala & Wildlife Crusade.

Despite being an animal lover from a young age, it was a trip to Queensland with her family that truly opened her eyes to the plight of the wildlife industry, and in particular koalas.

“In 2015, my family and I took a trip to Queensland and went to Australia Zoo and that’s where I got to see and touch my first koala, and where I fell in love with them. A year later, Mum and I watched a segment on The Living Room where they said koalas were listed as a vulnerable species in Queensland and NSW, and I decided I wanted to do something rather than just sitting and waiting for someone else to do something,” she said.

The Diamond Creek local, who is in year nine at Montmorency Secondary College, and her mum began selling small items at local markets to not only raise money but also awareness.

“I started a Facebook page and I got a lot of people involved in the community in that, and I got reached out to by my primary school who wanted me to come and talk to the grade 2s about what I do as they were doing a topic on Australian animals, and that’s where I thought that that’s something else I could do,” she said.

She’s now got a fair few school and group presentations under her belt and says the main message she spreads to young people is that age isn’t a barrier when it comes to making a difference in the world.

“There are always little things you can do. I tell kids to pick an animal and to learn as much about it as possible, and then tell their friends and families all about it,” she said.

She said the Facebook page was what attracted the most attention and awareness.

“Once we got the Facebook page up and running, we had a lot of people from everywhere joining, who wanted to do their bit to help. So then we started taking online donations and I would do things like buy groceries for wildlife, where people would message me saying ‘I’m going to put $10 in your bank account to buy tissues to give to wildlife volunteers to use on koalas’ and I’d go out and buy that,” she said.

When she reflects on the amount of money so far raised, she is amazed.

“Every time people donate and it goes up, I just feel so shocked, I didn’t think it would grow this much,” she said.

In addition to buying small, useful items, Libby donates the money straight to wildlife shelters all around Australia. Recently, after the devastating bushfires that killed an extraordinary amount of Australian wildlife, money went directly to shelters caring for those injured animals.

But Libby said raising awareness was almost more important than raising funds.

“One example is at a Clean Up Australia Day event one year I found out that there were platypus in the Diamond Creek river, and if you snip off the rings around juice container lids, you could save their lives, so I educated a lot of people about that,” she said.

When asked what motivates her to put in so much work after school, on weekends and school holidays, Libby said it was her empathy towards the special creatures.

“When I learned about what was happening I just felt so bad and I thought if I didn’t know that information, I wonder how many others don’t know too. So I wanted to educate people to say ‘look at what they’re going through, and if we don’t start helping now, it’s not going to get any better’,” she said.

Libby also volunteers at wildlife centres and she says the other volunteers there are an inspiration to her.

“When I go and volunteer and I hear stories from other volunteers about their experiences, that inspires and motivates me to want to help them,” she said.

Libby said one of the highlights of her wildlife journey so far was meeting her hero, international wildlife warrior Jane Goodall last year.

“I started working with Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots Australia and they said to me she was coming out for a weekend in May last year, and on a tree planting day I met her. Then they asked if I wanted to make an exhibition showcasing what I do and I got to have a one on one conversation with her; that was an amazing experience. She’s very passionate about educating people and getting people involved, so I gave her an overview of all my work and what I do for my community. I just think she’s amazing, she’s such an inspirational person given everything she’s accomplished,” she said.

When asked what her future looked like, Libby said she wasn’t 100% sure but said she knew she wanted to keep helping Australian wildlife.

“Every year I do something new, there are new ideas and plans, and I’m hoping that it continues to grow and get bigger and better. I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I know I do want to stick with wildlife in any way, whether it’s in education, or something like that, I’m not entirely sure,” she said.

In late 2020, Libby was awarded the “Young Legends Award” as part of Keep Victoria Beautiful’s Sustainable Cities Award. Libby doesn’t volunteer for the awards but hopes that through her success, others are inspired to act, no matter their age.

She said no matter what, there’s one message she won’t stop spreading: “No voice is too little, no hands are too small, to help save our wildlife.”

You can find out more about Libby’s work here.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Meg De Young

88. Ben Stewart

23 Jul

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Having benefited from music mentorship from a young age, the lead singer of Slowly Slowly Ben Stewart is a strong believer in giving back to the community.

Ben said he had an infatuation with music from a young age, starting on the drum kit at the age of 10. And while motivation and drive came naturally to him, he said the industry could be difficult to navigate at first, which was why he believed it was “just part of the job” to help up and coming musicians.

“I feel like I spent so long wondering around in the dark, and I don’t want that for the same sort of people who have the same drive as me. It’s really frustrating when you have someone who’s really obsessive and driven with music but who’s in a schooling system that’s not catering to them,” he said.

Ben’s involvement in the local music industry started when he did a Youth Advisory Group traineeship in Croydon when he was 15, which he said was very similar to the Jets program in Banyule.

“You can get certificates in lighting and sound and the running of events. I put together the Maroondah Festival one year, with a line up of my favourite bands; that was a huge foot in the door for me,” he said.

About four years ago, Ben also joined the Banyule youth team, helping out with events and outreach.

He said he really clicked with a lot of the young people involved and he eventually moved his way up to be in a role where he was co-facilitating or facilitating events or programs. One of those was Band Jam, a program where young people could come together to make music and share tips and tricks from the industry.

Soon enough, Ben’s own project – Slowly Slowly – started to gain momentum and most of his time was put into the band. The band consists of four members, Ben as lead singer and guitarist, Alex Quayle on bass guitar, Albert Doan on guitar and Patrick Murphy on drums.

Ben said despite going to different high schools, he and Alex were good friends throughout. After school finished, they began jamming together and eventually formed Slowly Slowly with Patrick and Albert coming on board.

“Every member came from a different band, and they were the stand out members. If you were watching Pat’s old band, you wouldn’t have been able to take your eyes off him,” he said.

The band released their first single in mid-2015, and five years later, have big hits under their belt like Alchemy and Ten Leaf Clover, and Hottest 100 favourite Jellyfish.

Reflecting on how far they have come in a short time, Ben said it was a really nice feeling to have an audience who was watching every move they made.

“You definitely feel it through the live shows, you’ve got people singing along and it’s very different to playing to no one at an old bar on a Saturday night. And it’s been a huge source of confidence. It’s allowed me to be a little bit more artistic and to take some risks that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

But he said he and the band have stayed very grounded throughout their rise to fame, including in the process of making music, which has remained the same from the start.

Ben is the songwriter of Slowly Slowly too, and he said songs come to the band 95% complete.

“I’ll write the entire arrangement, and of course everything’s up for discussion and every decision is made for the better of the band. The biggest reason Slowly Slowly has been so successful is there’s no egos in the band, we’re all in it to have some fun and to make some cool music,” he said.

Over the years, songwriting has been almost like a therapy for Ben but he said he writes music from a few different places now.

“It used to simply be like an outlet, a lot of it was done in secret, it was almost like a valve to let off, but after doing it for a while it became a craft, and muscles you build up. I draw a lot of inspiration from my life but it doesn’t always have to be autobiographical, sometimes I draw from other art forms,” he said.

Ben said COVID-19 has put a pause on Slowly Slowly’s “biggest touring year yet” but it gave them the opportunity to focus on writing and “setting ourselves up for a few good years of music”.

“We were supposed to head out on the Groovin’ The Moo tour, and it was shaping up to be the biggest year of our careers, until the rug got pulled from under us. But rather than sitting around licking our wounds, we used it as an opportunity to bank some material. We tried really hard to make the most of this time, and have been really, really busy in the studio,” he said.

He said while he’s looking forward to what’s to come for Slowly Slowly, he plans to keep working with young people too.

“I want to provide a service for young people that is really relevant to the industry. It’s rare to find that passion in young people and I think that’s what fuels our arts industry and I don’t want that to go to waste, so that’s what drives my work with youth,” he said.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photo: Michelle Pitris

87. Samatar Yusuf

16 Jun

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When I first met Samatar Yusuf, I asked him to describe himself. ‘Community oriented’ and ‘passionate’, he said. But the more I got to know the 23 year-old, the more I realised these adjectives were huge understatements.

The Heidelberg West local has got a long list of achievements under his belt already, and it all revolves around one sentiment – helping others in his community thrive.

This passion to help and drive to get it done were instilled in him from a young age, playing a sport he holds close to his heart – soccer.

“I’ve been playing soccer for the Heidelberg Stars since primary school. I kept playing throughout the years and then when I reached a senior level, [the club] offered for me to spend some time with the junior players, not in a full role, but a support role, bringing out equipment on the days they trained and supporting them on match days,” Samatar said.

He said from there, the club started to properly notice him, and eventually asked if he would like to coach a team of his own – a prospect that was initially terrifying to Samatar.

“At the start I was like ‘no I can’t do that, that’s massive responsibility’, but over the years I’d seen what the other coaches were doing and learned from them,” he said.

So he said yes, and before he knew it, was coaching a team of under 12s. He admitted that the first season “wasn’t the best”, but said it was more about getting to know the team and bonding with them. The longer he did it, the more he fell in love with it and he began thinking about the future and committing to coaching long term.

How quickly Samatar adapted to his new role and the passion that was exuding out of him became clear to the club, and he was invited to join the sub committee. Soon after, he was asked to join the actual committee, a role he described as eye opening.

He said seeing how reliant the club was on volunteers made him realise the true value of volunteering.

“If you’re a volunteer, you’re not getting paid, but you still have that responsibility that if you’re meant to do something, you should do it like you’re being paid because that person is relying on you,” he said.

Almost seven years later and Samatar is still heavily involved in the club, but in mid-2018 he decided to take things to the next level.

“[A group of friends and I] were thinking about how we could support the young kids with their education on top of them loving soccer, because all the kids wanted to do was play, play, play. If you told them they were playing Monday to Sunday, they’d be happy with that, but their parents wanted them to do their homework, so we were thinking about how we could do both,” he said.

So along came the idea to launch Bright Young Minds Australia.

“We bring kids together on weekends, and before they start the sport or activity, we support them with their homework, to ease the pressure on parents. We also helped them with cultural stuff that they hadn’t learned yet, like integrating the Australian and Somali culture,” he said.

Initially, they started with a small group of about 10-15 kids that they already knew, but eventually they began getting requests for more kids to join. They put their brains together to work out a way they could make it bigger and better and settled on the idea of approaching a local futsal centre to use a court there. And they were given the green light to go ahead.

“We did that for a good 10 weeks, and then the futsal centre came back and said ‘would you want to start a league?’. We started with 10-15 kids, then had 20, then 30, then all of a sudden we had a whole program,” he said.

And just when you thought Samatar couldn’t add anything more to his plate, he did just that.

At a soccer presentation night, he met the then president of the Somali Australian Council of Victoria, also known as SACOV, who gave Samatar an insight into what they did for the local and wider Victorian Somali community.

“[The president and I] bonded really well, and I saw myself in the kind of position he was in – spending lots of time in the community, advocating for the people in the community, so that’s how I got involved,” he said.

He said his role at SACOV was incredibly diverse and ranged from having someone come in needing help translating a letter, to organising events and camps. One of the biggest events he’s been involved in is Somali week Oceania, a soccer tournament that happens annually over the Christmas break that’s attended by “a good 2000 people”.

Last year, Samatar was awarded the Banyule Young Volunteer of the Year Award, in recognition of all of his local community work.

“It felt amazing, knowing all the hard work was finally recognised. It made me want to do more,” he said.

In amongst all of his volunteer work, Samatar works at the Banyule Council as a social enterprise and local jobs administration officer. The social enterprise aspect of the job entails supporting local businesses that have a social cause, for example a café that’s employing people with an intellectual disability. He described the employment side to the job as connecting with different businesses to get them to put on a lens of how they could support different people.

And as if life couldn’t get busier, he’s also in his first year of a Bachelor of Community Development degree at Deakin University.

“It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to study, but given all that I’ve been involved in, I think community’s where it’s at and I’ll see where that takes me,” he said.

But one thing’s for sure – he wants to be out and about helping those around him.

“My family migrated to Australia as refugees, so given that the opportunities and education was a bonus. When my parents came here, it was kind of like ‘work, work, work’. For them there wasn’t that room to focus on us [because] everything was about trying to get food on the table and now I see myself as trying to support young people who are in the same situation, and to kind of do the best I can in making positive change,” he said.

You can catch Samatar on the Noteworthy podcast here.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photo: Rod Cebellas

86. Rebecca Lonie

11 Sep

Bec Lonie is bubbly and animated. It’s easy to imagine her in her role as Jets Team Leader, running the Banyule creative arts space and working with young people.

The Jets facility is responsible for delivering a range of programs and activities for young people in and around Banyule. It presents young people with an opportunity to train in and and to access a range of professional music and multimedia equipment, be involved in creative arts workshops and help coordinate events, including the annual Banyule Youth Festival.

With a background in education and performing arts, Bec was naturally a very good match for Jets.

“I studied art therapy, yoga, opera – I did a lot of weird things! It started to link together through my career in education,” she says.

“Then, [Jets] is one of the first places I’ve worked where all of those disparate practices and philosophies I’ve studied have come together.”

Bec originally thought she might become a performer herself. “I soon realised my personality wasn’t showcase-y enough!”

Despite this, it’s clear Bec has a real love for creative arts. When it comes to her work, Bec speaks eloquently and with passion.

“The benefits of creative arts are self expression and building confidence. Those are transferable skills for other areas of life. Young people get to develop confidence and their sense of self, while having heaps of fun… They leave in a much better place because of that.”

“The idea of having a creative space as a vehicle for self expression and development is something I get really excited about,” Bec says.

“The fact that the Banyule Council has a facility like Jets as part of the work of the youth team is amazing in itself. It can be an awesome alternative for young people who might not fit into the footy team, or might not yet have found their niche.”

What exactly awaits young people who join Jets?

“It’s a choose your own adventure!” says Bec.

“If you’re interested, and you’ve got an idea, we’d love to help you realise that and support you in having an awesome time while you do it.”

Bec also tells me that when young people are applying for jobs, it can be difficult to put together a resume with little experience.

She says, “Jets offers opportunities for [work experience] placements, mentoring and support which can help young people get into employment. We recognise that it’s a gap and it’s one that we’re uniquely placed to meet.

“The culture is ‘less scores, more skills’, so we’re aiming to deliver on that.”

When I ask Bec what her favourite things are about Jets that keep her coming back each day, she takes a moment to mull it over.

“That’s a good question! I think having a really inclusive culture at Jets is one of the things we’re most proud of.”

At Jets, young people from all backgrounds can come together to work on projects – this includes people with a disability, people who identify as LGBTIQ, people who have mental health issues, or those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“That sense of community, of being like-minded creatives, unites everyone because of their similarities, not their differences,” says Bec.

Most importantly, Bec keeps coming back because she sees young people achieving great things.

“There are lots of individuals who have gone through Jets who have become very successful – whether that’s going on to study in a creative field or being employed in a creative role.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we don’t just talk about it – things happen,” says Bec.

“[Young people] may come to us feeling a little lost or unsure about what they’re good at and [through Jets] they’ve been able to follow their passion and ‘make it’… Some people may have joined for social reasons, but everyone leaves with such great skills.”

“We’ve had a young person move onto the Arts Centre to be involved in a bigger project… This maturity, personal growth and skill-building is awesome to be a part of.”

For Bec, the smaller moments can be just as rewarding.

“It’s all the little wins and the conversations we have at Jets. Hearing someone say ‘I feel safe here’ – that is amazing. It shows the impact we can have on someone’s life. If young people can feel confident in a group here, it can make them feel confident elsewhere – then their world starts to open up,” she says.

“Particularly now days, it’s not about ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’. It’s about what awesome things do you want to create, or what kind of person do you want to be, holistically?

“I think these are things we can help support [young people] to be confident about. We can help them to be confident in themselves and in the gifts they can share – because we all have one!”

Words: Annabelle Pendlebury

Photo: Nicole Squelch



85. Anthony Despotellis

2 May


From the moment Anthony started his interview I could tell that this is a man who is passionate about what he does. He has come up the ranks in the community and acts as a mentor on local art projects, and recently supported the mural project at the community garden at Macleod College. He is passionate about socially aware hip hop culture and creating legal murals around Melbourne.

Currently, his life is divided into three parts- he has just completed his industrial design course at university, he is involved in spray painting, and is learning a new language. He tells me he has always been creative since he was a child, but it wasn’t until he was about 14 that he started learning how to break dance, which set in motion a big change in his life. Through this he found hip hop. The 4 components of this are graffiti, rapping, DJing and break dancing, all of which he is involved with in some way. He expresses concern that graffiti is not very widely accepted as an art form, yet you can learn a lot from it. He says that ‘art is a never ending journey’

Anthony loves to draw and paint people with a story behind them as it makes the art more personal and meaningful. This is part of what he will do when he travels to Brazil for three months, where he plans to paint walls and the people he meets. He says ‘you can look at someone and not know anything about them, but once you find out something about them it changes the way you look at them’ He wants people to look at his portraits and see what it is that makes that person unique.

In his opinion, artistic expression is important in today’s society because it has always been a part of the world, and reflects the world we live in. It is part of us. He tells me that a very important part of art is ‘the way you create it and who you create it with… art is everywhere and we like it whether we know it or not’.

One of the first projects Anthony was involved in was spray painting the wall of a local gym. He says that was a great experience because of the amount of work and effort he put into the job. One of his biggest projects so far was for Yarra Valley Water , painting a mural opposite Loyola College in Watsonia. It took 3 months to plan and only 1 week to paint, so the ratio isn’t quite equal, but he said it was a great opportunity that he enjoyed working on.

Being part of the hip-hop movement is very meaningful to him, as he feels like having strong goals and working hard, but still having fun is paramount to what he does. He says it has helped him realise what is important in life and he gets a lot out of it.

To someone who wants to get involved in this movement, he suggests that they try it out. It is continually developing and attracts a lot of different people from different backgrounds. ‘If you want to get into painting, grab some cans and paint a (legal) wall, and if you want to start dancing you can find tutorials online… find the right people, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and just enjoy it.’

Graffiti grew from the need for a voice and expression of feelings. Many people don’t have a very positive view of it. To these people Anthony says he would educate them on the history of the art form and tell them that it is a beautiful art that is not intended to be destructive.

When asked about who his influences are, he doesn’t give a list of names, he tells me he is influenced by everything, especially since social media is so popular with artists these days, its impossible not to be influenced by everyone. People often take what is important to them and reflect that in their art, which is what makes everyone’s work so different. To continue to improve on his work, he studies art, and sets goals for himself to achieve, so he is constantly practicing and improving his skills, and this is the method that he sticks to in order to get better.

He would like to thank Banyule Council for the opportunities he has been given because they have helped him progress from walking around asking to paint walls, to being paid for jobs. He says ‘there are a lot of people who just do things for the hell of doing it, and if you’re reading this then be that person who does things the best that they can.’


I had the opportunity to catch up Anthony after he returned from his trip and he filled me in on all of the things he experienced during his time in Brazil.

He stayed in Rio De Janeiro for 3 months in what is known as a Favela and spent a long time getting to know the area and the people that lived there. One thing that really stood out to him was how welcoming the people were. He says it was a bit of a reality shock because where he was staying, no one spoke English, people wouldn’t walk with their phones out or be outside after dark and the culture was very different. One of the things he liked about the trip was the cuisine. ‘The food was incredible’, he tells me, and he says that the neighbours would often bring him food, out of a kind and welcoming spirit.

He did a lot of exploring and adventuring during the trip, and as planned, lots of painting. He painted the side of a highway and says that while he was working, the police came and talked to him about his art and complimented his work. He did 3 paintings in the favelas and slept overnight in a school one night while working on one of them, and says that his painting took him to places he wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

Anthony says he would definitely return to Brazil and says he now has an affinity with the country. When asked if he would like to travel to other places, he tells me ‘yes and no’, because he has such a strong connection to South America he would rather go there again before travelling anywhere else. However, although he loves the country, he wouldn’t move there because of how different the culture is.

Anthony recommends travelling while you’re young in order to experience different things and develop as an individual, and go to places you wouldn’t usually go so you can grow your cultural intelligence and be able to see different parts of the world.

You can follow Anthony’s work on Instagram

Words: Jennifer Walker

Photo: Sean Porter

84. Samira Liban

11 Dec

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Samira Liban said she wouldn’t be the person she is today without important mentors that guided her through her younger years.

While most of those were primary and high school teachers, the 23 year-old said one particular group was formative.

When she was in grade six at Olympic Village Primary School, a mentoring group for the older primary school students was formed, called Girl’s Group.

The group, led by Banyule Youth Services’ Leonie Farrell, was an open meeting place for young women, to discuss issues and opportunities, and strengthen relationships.

Samira recalls running to the Banyule Community Health Centre when the bell rang at the end of the day at 3:30pm once a week, excited about what the activity or discussion topic for the day would be.

After running for multiple years, Girl’s Group eventually wrapped up, but Samira said the impact it had on her life was immeasurable.

“It helped me maneuver my way through to high school” she said.

And now, over 10 years later, she is returning the favour.

Already connected to Banyule Youth Services, she was approached last year to see if she could suggest a program worthy of starting up to support young women locally.

She said her answer was a no brainer – Girl’s Group.

So at the start of the year, the group was reformed at her old primary school, with the same intentions it had over a decade ago, to support young women in their journey to high school.

Knowing the impact it had on her as an 11 year-old, Samira decided to get involved again.

But this time around, she wouldn’t be a participant, rather a mentor.

Samira has almost wrapped up a full  year’s worth of mentoring 10 and 11 year old girls.

She said while she came prepared knowing a lot would have changed since she was in their shoes, she was blown away by how mature they were.

One of the most important themes they worked on this year was self-respect.

“We really wanted to dig that into them at a  young age, because once they’re in high school, these sort of things start coming to mind,” she said.

To start these conversations, at the start of most meetings, they would go around the room and get each person to say something they had done that day that they were proud of.

She also worked to strengthen relationships in the cohort.

“Straight away we saw there was a division between them, the little groups they had formed, and the preconceived ideas they had of each other.” she said.

“We’ve taught them how to talk kindly to each other, and how to communicate their feelings.”

She said each of the girls was different, and needed different approaches to take information in.

“Some were loud and some were a bit quieter, so in some sessions we would do drama and plays, and in other groups we’d do writing or games,” she said.

But she said each session was different.

“We plan most sessions beforehand, but it’s always dependent on what the girls want to do, ” she said.

“One might be having a bad day and need one-on-one mentoring, so we’ll give them that.”

Samira finds the concept of giving back incredibly rewarding, and her pro activity to getting involved speaks volumes about her character.

In addition to her hard work mentoring young women in Girl’s Group, once a week she volunteers her time and goes to her local bakery to collect the unsold bread.

She then distributes this to local churches, mosques and individual houses, so it “doesn’t go to waste”.

And she has been recognised for her contribution to her community, having been invited to the Governor’s house for a breakfast during Mental Health Week recently.

“That was really cool,” she said.

In the midst of all her community work, she has also found time to study.

She admitted she had been a bit “all over the shop” when it came to choosing her study path and eventual career.

She originally enrolled in Human Resource Management at La Trobe University in Bundoora, but realised that wasn’t her “cup of tea”, so switched to an early childhood course, which she has just completed her second-last year of.

But she said sh was still unsure where she wanted it to take her.

“There’s not really job title suited to what I think I’m best doing, maybe I’ll just have to make up a role,” she said.

When asked what it was that she thought she was best doing, she paused to think.

“Talking to young people, and trying to help create a better future for them,” she replied.

When asked ‘why’, she recalled a moment from many years ago, at an end-of-year dinner with the Girl’s Group when she was in grade six.

“We went around the table and everyone had to say what they wanted to be when they were older, and I said I wanted to be like Leonie,” she said.

“Everyone laughed, but it was true, she had so much of an impact on me, and I wanted to do the same for girls like me.”

Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Heidi Woodman

83. Dean Peters

4 Dec


Creating music has always been Dean Peters’ biggest passion, but he’s now taken it a step further, mentoring young people who want to follow similar paths.

For the last five years, the 22 year-old Templestowe resident, who is also known as Mythic, has been heavily involved in the local music community, participating in, and even forming, music groups that bring likeminded young people together.

He has performed at local events and festivals, including Banyule’s YouthFest and Malahang Community Festival, and thanks to this experience, has earned more responsibilities.

“I’ve performed at YouthFest twice and Malahang twice, and at the last YouthFest [in September], I got asked to host the open mic sessions,” he said.

“There were two sessions, the first one didn’t go so well, but the second one was really popular, before I knew it, it felt like half the festival was there.”

At this year’s Malahang in November, rather than performing like he normally would, he hosted and stage-managed the music festival.

He said while he was more accustomed to performing, hosting events had been a good learning experience.

“It’s unfamiliar territory for me, I’m used to playing and doing my rapping, but now instead of remembering lyrics, I have to remember who’s playing and details about them,” he said.

But he said his main focus was still his solo career.

He released his first mix tape to the world last year, and is currently in the final stages of putting together an EP, which will be called ‘Castle’.

“I’ve recently released a single called ‘Talk Like This’, and that was like the trailer to my EP,” he said.

“I’m probably about 70% through it, I’ve written all the lyrics, all the beats are made, we’re just in the final stages, with photo shoots and music videos to be done.”

He said his EP would have poppy, hip hop vibes, with no crazy beats, but nice melodies over the top.

Dean described his music as “conscious hip hop”.

“The issues I’m addressing are only surface level when it comes to my personal life, but I go a bit deeper when it comes to social issues and issues around the world that I like talking about,” he said.

Those issues included mental health and the gap between first world and third world countries.

He predicted that these issues would be explored more deeply as the years went by.

“I’m still young, there are still going to be a lot more issues that arise,” he said.

“Even after five years of writing, I don’t think I’ve written everything there is to write about myself.

“The further you go into your soul, the deeper you get, and the more you learn about yourself.”

He said music is a perfect outlet to deal with any issues he might be facing.

“When I feel anxious or angry, which can be a mental and a physical thing, I write about it, that way I feel like I’ve been able to express it,” he said.

“Anger has probably been an issue for me for about four or five years, whereas anxiety is something I’ve started dealing with more recently.”

He said he also raps about positivity.

“My main musical influence has always been Bliss n Esso, they’re constantly spreading messages of peace, love and unity,” he said.

“That’s something they always take with them, and it’s something I try and take on board as well.”

He credited the support of friend Matt Casey to getting his EP to where he had wanted it to be.

“He’s incredible, he makes the beats, records my vocals, does my videos; he pretty much does everything except write the lyrics,” he said.

He was also grateful for the support of Jets and the hip hop program New Hope, where he had been given guidance in writing and music production, and provided with a space to rehearse and gig opportunities.

Another collaboration he was excited about was the upcoming ‘What’s Good Cypher Volume 1’ group project he was working on with rappers from around Melbourne.

“We make a beat and then each rapper writes their own verse,” he said.

“That’s currently in the works, everyone’s done their own writing, we just need to record it.”

Dean has also completed a Diploma in Audio Engineering and Music Production at Collarts.

He said he was eager to get his EP out in March next year, and that his generation’s ability to use social media as an outlet to get started in the industry was a double-edged sword.

“I see it as valuable because it’s a good way to get your name out there, but the fact that it’s so easily accessible means you’re going to have ten rappers out there rather than just one, it can be very saturated,” he said.

“There are a lot of extremely talented people out there that aren’t getting noticed.”

But Dean’s dreams are perfectly in tact, and he said he’ll do whatever it takes to achieve them.

“The goal is to be a paid and working performer and rapper,” he said.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photo: Sean Porter

82. Akolda Bil

18 Sep


23-year-old Akolda has come far in his life as a young Sudanese refugee. When I caught up with him, he was completing a student placement at Youth Foundation, which is an organisation that aims to promote youth empowerment and fund youth driven community projects. After helping to facilitate and MC the Youth Foundation End of Year Celebration Akolda is “100% keen to get involved in more projects involving, art, music and media,” and attain his “Certificate 4 in Community Services Diploma.

Akolda tells me that he first connected with Youth Foundation when he was at Parkville College Flexible Learning Centre, the educational facility at the Parkville Justice Centre.

During his incarceration 3 years ago, Akolda wanted to add a basketball hoop to the yard, as “there was no outdoor space during the breaks…you’d sit up against the wall and do nothing.” Working with the Youth Foundation to “make the basketball project happen meant we had an activity, a sport to do, something to connect with.”

Arriving in Australia in 2003, Akolda hoped to escape “the war, the negative vibes and pursue a better life.” But, Akolda struggled, “as many younger African refugee youth do.” His crimes as a younger man after coming to Australia from Sudan (as well as those of his siblings) “was disappointing to my mother…she didn’t bring me here to do this…to be a criminal.”

“Language barriers, lack of support, and not understanding the law system and the uncertainty of going in and out of court” made it hard for Akolda to avoid trouble and bad influence. He was  “anxious and uncertain” and left without guidance and purpose.

Akolda cites “pursuing an education” and “my mother telling me to better myself and get in the right mind space” as the key to reaching out and finding the support he needed to integrate into his community.

Now, he wants to “give back to the community who supported me by doing youth work in a multicultural setting, working with kids like me.” It can be hard to find “positive vibes,” he says, and to know “why they (the refugees in Parkville) are getting punished.” Even now Akolda still faces the occasional hardship due to his criminal record but is grateful for the help he received to make sure he has been able to find employment.

Akolda wants to pursue youth work in the area of advocacy and accessibility, collaborating with youth organisations. He also plans to work with Yarra Youth Services, helping into improve the youth music scene.

Akolda “gives props to Parkville College for giving me motivation and a good study environment.” Without study, “I don’t think I would have gotten this far,” he proclaims proudly. When I ask him what advice to give to young people who are have similar journeys to him, he says it’s important to “understand what’s going on in your community, always have hope, and never give up on your dreams.”

Words: Taylor Carre-Riddell

Picture: Sean Porter

81. Darren Murray

7 Aug


As a profession, teaching is about a lot more than helping students to learn the assigned curriculum. Teachers often hold a support role, ensuring the health and well-being of their students and Darren Murray understands this more than anyone else. A teacher at Viewbank College since 2007, Murray, who teaches PE and Health (and Japanese occasionally), is more recognisable in the school as the Health and Well-being Leader. In charge of implementing programs to ensure that students are supported and experiencing strong mental health at the school, Murray’s work in the Health and Wellbeing domain over the last nine years has left a positive impact on Viewbank College and everyone within it.

Murray believes the formation of Viewbank College’s Friends of Health and Well-being committee has led to the changes in the schools Health and Well-being programs. This was also “the beginning of [his] involvement” with health and well-being at the school. However, this wasn’t his first entry into the world of health and well-being. The culmination of his own experiences and experiences of those around him has been the catalyst for his journey. These experiences have translated into skills in areas such as mental health which he admits “has become a bit of a specialty area, even if [he’s] not very well-trained” in it. He’d witnessed similar drug and alcohol education programs in Western Australia where he lived and taught before his move to Viewbank. He has “been able to apply a similar model”  by including the whole school community – teachers, parents and students – in the discussions around health and well-being.

Through his work in Health and Well-being at Viewbank College, Murray has established programs such as “Heads Up Week” for Year 8 students. Inspired by the Resilience Project, the cohort spends their week learning about mental health and developing skills, resilience and positive strategies to combat poor mental health. The program is delivered by all of the teachers the students will have across a week. Often, the content will be delivered in a way that is relevant to the domain of the teacher with the art based projects delivered by Art teachers and outdoor activities or activities pertaining to physical health delivered by Sport and PE teachers. While in the College this may be the best known of the Health and Well-being programs presented, Murray explains that there are “overlay programs” in each year level.

“In Year 7, we have a focus on nutrition and physical activity,” he says. “We have a fun run and we have a sugar workshop where we watched ‘That Sugar Film’ and analysed how much sugar there is in foods.”

He also explains that there has been a push to drink tap water for the benefits to our health and that of the environment and this campaign has culminated in chilled water taps now at the school.

In Year 9, students participate in a mindfulness program and the Year 10’s have guest speakers present content related to careers as they undertake subject selection for VCE and drug and alcohol awareness too.

“In Year 11 and 12 it’s harder to access students and I feel like we still have a long way to go with health and well-being,” Murray admits. “We have done programs over the years with the leaders about drugs and alcohol but I think it would be good to do some more work about mental health in particular because the stress and anxiety levels are high.”

Murray also talks about the changes made by the school in terms of diversity and inclusivity especially for LGBTQ students, referring to the work of students such as Skye Lacy (known for their LGBTQ activism in the Viewbank College community) to create change in the school community, calling these changes a “highlight”.

“We’ve come a long way in my time here in relation to gender and sexual diversity,” he says. “I know that we’ve got gay students and transgender students in the college and they feel well supported, they feel comfortable in their own skin and they’re included in Viewbank College.”

As well as being passionate about health and well-being, Murray is also passionate about properly engaging students in the classroom, encouraging students to fully engage with the content rather than sit passively and experience what he calls “death by PowerPoint.” As a visual learner, he is a fan of using the whiteboard in class and creating mindmaps to deliver the content in a clear way that demonstrates the interrelationships of the content.

Murray’s latest project at the school is the implementation of the State Government’s “Respectful Relationships” program at Viewbank College, focusing on creating a positive and safe environment for all at school regardless of gender or sexuality. Citing the progress made in the campaign for gender equality by individuals such as Rosie Batty, he acknowledges that “we could still improve a lot” to achieve an environment safe for everyone. This program is still in the developing stages but will hopefully have a positive impact on Viewbank College.

The work of Murray to improve health and well-being has not gone unnoticed at the school and is contributing to changes in school culture and improving the health and well-being of students by making these conversations about mental illness and other struggles more common to break the stigma. “When I was your age I wouldn’t have known what depression was,” he says to me. Thanks to his work, mental health is no longer taboo at Viewbank College.

Words: Eloise Derrett

Picture: Sean Porter