Tag Archives: Banyule 100

40. Glenn Farrington and Brett Ross

2 Jul

_MG_9969-EditIt is quite extraordinary sitting across from Glenn and Brett. They make you feel at ease, but also in awe. Between them they have over fifty years of experience in youth work, and despite this, they are not jaded. Together, they present with overwhelming warmth, and speak with compassion and care. They are two youth workers from Open House, a community house currently based in Ivanhoe but shortly moving to Macleod. With Open House, Glenn and Brett run programs and mentor youth and generally are known as people you can trust and turn to.

Before officially becoming a staff member eighteen years ago, Brett was a plumber and had volunteered at Open House for two years. He was looking for a change and saw the good that Open House does and transitioned to full time youth work. With his family background to Open House (Glenn’s parents were the founders) was almost preordained but you can’t say he is there out of a sense of duty or obligation. It is pure passion; a drive to help others and pass on knowledge. He has been involved with Open House for over twenty years, and youth work for over thirty, as well as being a pastry chef before making the full-time transition to Open House.

In the early 1990s, a group was started: The Banyule Network. It was a support group for youth worker, who, in the words of Glenn, “didn’t know what we were doing”. They were all blue collar workers – “mostly blokes”, he says, “which I thought was weird as I thought it was mostly females in this industry” – who knew they wanted to help and make a difference but needed the extra support. Glenn is passionate about mentoring and believes all youth workers should have a mentor and supportive work systems in place. He speaks highly of Open House and mentions it was only earlier that day he went into his boss’s office with a problem. Having the open-door system, he says, is imperative to learning, development, and the worker’s own well-being.

They tell me about different participants they’ve had over the years, the programs they’ve offered. Many of the programs Open House offer start organically: a participant comes to the worker, they identify a need and a program is crafted. About ten years ago, they tried to target youth smokers. They had to invent ways to get the effects of smoking across and eventually thought of breathing through straws. “Want to know what it’s like to be a smoker, thirty years in the future? Breathe through a McDonalds drinking straw and try to play basketball,” Glenn tells me, laughing. By decreasing the size of the straw – McDonalds, standard, Chuppa-Chup – the harder it is to breathe thus the lungs of a smoker down the track. It’s a real practical way to reach youths who smoke who otherwise can’t begin to imagine the health risks so far in the future.

“He couldn’t take more than five steps,” Glenn says, laughing at the memory of a participant trying to play basketball while breathing through a Chuppa-Chup straw. It’s a funny memory but a sombering experience, and just another example of Open House’s innovation and commitment to helping people, no matter the road blocks (they had originally applied for assistance and funding to do a harm minimisation program around smoking and were unsuccessful, and despite this found alternative methods to present the program within their constraints).

They operate on a friendship model which gives them more leeway to work differently with their participants. “It’s about meeting them where they’re at,” Brett says. There are programs to see people from prep to elder age; and people know that long-term support is there: whenever they need it. Respect is also key component for both Glenn and Brett. “You tell me straight,” a participant once told Glenn. “The kids know Brett believes in them. You can tell by the way he tears up,” Glenn says, a little smile on his face.


Calling them mere co-workers would be a disservice to their relationship. Jostling around together in front of me and friends outside the workplace, Brett and Glenn are clearly close mates. “Would saying I love him be wrong?” Glenn joked, and for a moment they lovingly, jokingly, looked into each other’s eyes. Glenn says that he’s prettier than Brett, and Brett suggests that Glenn spends more time in the salon that he does. Despite the laughs, it’s obvious they care greatly for each other – but more so have huge amounts of respect for each other and their work. “There is only one word,” Glenn says. “It’s a privilege [to work with and know Brett]. We hold each other very close and very dear.” Brett returns the sentiment – after joking that Glenn read the cue cards correctly (and his $50 is in the mail) – saying “When talking about Glenn, its passion and compassion. Passion is what drives you and compassion is what you give out.” He says that he’s never met anyone as passionate as Glenn, or anyone more willing to take on complex cases and never them turn away, rising to the challenge.

As they walk me out, Glenn explains that to respect others personal space, they greet females by touching elbows. We touch elbows and say goodbye, and as the wind catches the door and slams behind me I know that their door has seen the best and worst of people – but Glenn and Brett are working hard to bring their best, and that’s a warming thought on a cold windy day.

Words: Megan Burke

Photo: Sean Porter


39. Uma Vijai

26 Jun

_MG_0044-EditI glanced at the clock as I sat in Uma’s shop just before our interview; the time neared 9am. The ‘cling’ of the front door bell then swivelled my vision back around to the shop front, where Uma rushed over to welcome in a community member in need of support. Our interview, and the working day for that matter, hadn’t even started – yet I was already struck by Uma’s ability to radiate such compassion and hospitality to those around her. This act of kindness was clearly so second-nature to Uma, and as I came to learn, was only one small part of the patchwork of Uma’s service to others locally and internationally.

I found out quite quickly that ‘Uma’ isn’t actually Uma’s real name. Thankfully, this was not a result of my chronic inability to remember names properly, but rather that ‘Uma’ actually means ‘mother’. No other name could be more appropriate. Uma is a huge motherly figure of support to her community, particularly for young people through her Rosanna shop ‘Idly Corner’. Uma describes her shop as a social hub of support and networking where guidance is provided to refugees, newly migrated families or anyone else who approaches her. A large component of this support is the practical advice she provides to young international students on how to navigate new life in Melbourne. This advice encompasses anything from train timetable information to library opening times, however, is also just as likely to involve discussions on whether or not the cute girl or guy on the train is worth pursuing. Uma has created an environment of extreme welcome and openness for young people and describes it with one tell-all sentence, “You get anything on the table here”.

Uma also carries on her Grandfather’s legacy of a career in astrology. She uses knowledge of planetary positions to provide advice to refugees on careers and daunting life-related questions. For the financially struggling, Uma provides this advice for free, or makes an arrangement for them to pay her later on. Her clients are from all corners of the world – Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, China, Fiji and many more countries. Uma’s assistance towards others transcends all cultural differences, while religion “doesn’t play a role” in who she helps. In Uma’s view, religious differences can be rectified through an acknowledgement of one core truth – that at the end of the day, “Everything is the same – love.” In a brilliant analogy to clarify this, she tells me, “Some religions are saying 2 + 2 is 4, some religions are saying 3 + 1 is four: the end result is only four”. Uma is a fervent supporter of multiculturalism and the “need to learn about other cultures and learn to respect and tolerate each other”. For the youth of the community, these are powerful messages to be spread.

Uma brings this multiculturalism to life in the Banyule community through a range of Indian-themed events. Some recent examples have been an Indian Festival to “make people aware of multiculturalism in India” and an Indian-themed 2-day function at Bellfield Community Health Centre. Both occasions and others have offered an opportunity for young people to extend their understanding of Indian culture through an authentic experience of Indian food, music and different traditions. Uma has also assisted the Rosanna Golf Links Primary School by providing Indian costumes for over 50 students and parents for their Bollywood Night, and assisted Austin Hospital nurses by providing traditional Indian Saris for their annual Sydney function. She also assisted the Banyule City Council last year with their Harmony Day by providing Indian and Sri Lankan Food. Moreover, Uma also coordinates annual group prayers involving now over 200 families to “ask the planets to give the best to everyone”.

Uma is an agent of change internationally as well as locally. When Uma noticed the torn Saris of rural women throughout India, she collected 108 Saris from Melbourne to be distributed from the north to the south of the country. Her contribution towards young people also extends overseas – you’re guaranteed to catch Uma at Officeworks sales collecting books, pens and other school stationery to be sent to poor students in India. Packs of shampoo, sheets, soft toys and left over stock from the shops surrounding Idly Corner are also sent to needy families. There is no one particular social group Uma helps, she assists “orphans, schools… just whoever I come across”.

Uma received the 2011 Volunteer of the Year Award, a nomination for 2013 Australian of the Year, has featured in the Leader Newspaper and was the recipient of the Westpac Kookaburra Award for her work coordinating 12 years of community prayers. Uma is also a member of the Multicultural Advisor Committee, and was recently a representative of the Indian community at a Banyule International Women’s Day event. The most powerful recognition of her work, however, comes from her daughter, Shruthi, “When she walks down the street… people really love her… you’re her daughter”.

Her greatest achievement yet? “I haven’t achieved it yet, I’m still learning”.

Uma challenges any suggestion that young people can’t pursue similar work to hers. She says, “It’s really not hard at all. You need to set your mind… and be a people person, that’s all”. Uma advises to “do what you can within your own capacity, and then take it from there”, and be persistent in the face of the inevitable criticism that can arise as a result of taking a leap into the unknown. Uma also offers food for thought which doesn’t often circulate throughout groups of young people, “People cheat and say they need things and take it for free…but that is their karma. You don’t have to judge people for what they are doing. If they can be happy with it…good luck to them.”

Uma’s incredible humility in light of her achievements also seems to be a central component of her work. Each award or achievement she shared with me was prefaced with “I’ve said too much about myself” or a concern that she was “showing off”. She shared her story for one reason, which was “to spread awareness and encourage others to act in a similar way for a better community overall”.

I’m interested to know though, will there ever be a time when she has to stop or take a break because there is simply too much need in the community? “Maybe that day – my breath will be stopped”.

Words: Steph Livingstone

Photo: Sean Porter

38. Ivanhoe Girls Grammar School Youth Parliament Team 2013

12 Jun


“We’re going to be the leaders of the world,” Rachel Mao, 18, exclaims. The audacity and courage of Rachel’s statement goes unnoticed by her and those around her. This is how they think. They are unapologetic, self assured and excited to be part of Generation Y, the future leaders of Australia. It can be breathtaking for older generations!

Before me, Rachel is joined by Crystal Wong, Gloria Deng and Mihika Hegde. They are all from the Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar team for Youth Parliament 2013. While the ministers of Victoria are absent for a week in July, 120 young people take over the chambers of Parliament and debate bills they have designed around issues important to them.

Hand-picked from a pool of year 11 applicants, the members of this team are as diverse as they are united. They agree everyone in the team “has a range of qualities, interests and skills, so as a team worked really well together” – and work they did. For six months they brainstormed and researched their chosen issue to craft the perfect bill, one that has an admirable and impressive balance between idealism and pragmatism.

Gloria says they wanted a bill that was “practical and captured what we were passionate about as a team … we thought about what needed the most change in Australia.” They decided on a bill titled “The Abolishment of Factory Farming” because the team was “really passionate about animal rights”. Factory farming is an industry where livestock is raised in highly confined spaces to produce high output at low cost, something that has become increasingly concerning for young people in particular as it raises many ethical issues. Their bill boldly stated that it’s aim was “to completely phase out factory farming by 2030”. The bill is highly ambitious even when compared to other Youth Parliament bills but the girls were determined to create a bill that was willing to make the necessary scarifies to create an Australia that is responsible, ethical and sustainable in the treatment towards livestock.

Speaking with wisdom beyond her years, Mihika explains why reducing cruelty towards animals is important: “Even though it’s such a new issue that’s only just come out into mainstream society, it’s been going on a long, long time. So there’s a shock factor to it, which is why it’s so important that we take that shock and turn it into actions.”

Truly the definition of striking while the iron is hot, the girls took their ambitious bill into Parliament House to be debated. Reflecting reality, not all bills debated are passed in the world of Youth Parliament. Their peers vote on a bill after a few rounds of healthy debate. The girls explain that friendship doesn’t come into play; their peers will decide if a bill should pass based purely on its merit. Crystal says firmly: “Everyone is serious about it. We actually think about whether a bill would change society for the better.”

Considering successful bills are passed onto the real-life relevant minister for consideration, with many influencing real laws, there was a lot of hard work and emotion at stake when the Ivanhoe team presented its bill for debate. Rachel reminisces about the moment their bill passed: “It was really exciting because we worked really hard to put our bill together. Having it debated and having support from everyone was really great.”

Inspired and empowered by the success of the bill and their time on Youth Parliament, the Ivanhoe girls explain how their lives have changed and been influenced. Gloria excitedly explains that they’re not usually in an environment with lots of different young people who want to create change. “It was really empowering,” she says. “At school, I didn’t really have anything, then I went to Youth Parliament and learned that I could have my passion!”

Crystal’s experience was rather personal: “I never used to debate or do public speaking. Going to Youth Parliament I proved to myself that it’s not that bad to speak out.”

It’s clear to me that Youth Parliament itself has been enriched and honored by the presence of these young women, powerhouses of change. As we close our interview, I challenge them by asking: “Why does youth engagement matter?” There is no doubt the cliché of the apathy and disengagement among young people runs rampant in society – what do the Ivanhoe girls think of this? Not much, apparently. They discovered that Australia is full of young people who want to make a change and are prepared to shoulder the problems they will inherit. Rachel implores young people to recognise that they” have the power to do something and to make a change”.

Mihika, with a determined glint in her eye, leaves me with words that once again astound me and remind me that the young women before me are forces to be reckoned with, now and in the future: “It sounds clichéd but we are the future of Australia. The problems we have today are the ones that will be solved by us in the very near future.”

Words: Amy Bryans

Photo: Sean Porter

37. Lisa Said

8 May

_MG_9958-2-Edit‘Why does it have to be this way?’ and ‘Where’s my place in the world?’ are two of Lisa Said’s favourite questions. Seem a little heavy? Lisa spends her days talking to people who ask themselves just this all the time. And no, she doesn’t sit on a panel of philosophers or anything along those lines. Lisa is a youth worker.

Lisa manages Link-U; Banyule Council’s after-hours mobile program that offers Banyule young people information and support for issues in their lives. Regular Link-U work involves going out on Friday and Saturday nights, the members wearing distinctive orange jackets and talking to the young people they meet, offering support, information, or just a chat, and providing referrals to relevant services and programs.

She also looks after the network of youth workers in the Banyule and Nillumbik area and coordinates meetings in which current local issues are discussed, as in what they can do to understand these issues, who is involved, and how they can advocate for the young people who are struggling with some of these issues.

As a little girl, Lisa loved animals and wanted to become a vet – but after passing out in her first surgery on Work Experience, she came to the conclusion that this probably wasn’t for her. An unfortunate (and smelly) incident with a small child while volunteering at a kindergarten meant she again had to look elsewhere to find her kind of work, so Lisa started taking legal studies at university, hoping to become qualified to take on a secretarial legal job. It was at this time that she got involved with a group called Teen Challenge down in St Kilda where she worked with young people who had life-controlling addictions, and found that she really enjoyed what she was doing.

This led Lisa to start doing more volunteer work locally, and getting involved with a youth action group in Eltham that took a caravan out on Friday nights to Blue Light discos and down to the local park area where they would find a number of substance-affected young people, to whom the group would hand out cups of coffee and hot chocolate and talk with about what was going on for them. Lisa realised that she really enjoyed doing this kind of thing, and went back to university where she started doing youth work.

When Lisa talked about her fascination with her work, I could practically feel the excitement and enthusiasm radiating from her. She really “enjoys the way young people are”, acknowledging that ‘young people’ aren’t just a homogenous group where everyone’s the same, but recognising the sense of transition from child to adult, which she see as a really interesting time. “I love the fact that it is very much a time when you explore who you are, and you explore why the world works the way it does”.

Lisa, working first hand with people during this part of their lives, sees the ways that young people express what they’re feeling and thinking and questioning creatively and artistically, and start to take on roles of leadership – but she also sees how young people can get really stuck at times, and find ways to express this too. Lisa says that this is the most rewarding part of her work. “They don’t think necessarily like adults, they don’t think like kids, it’s a very unique phase of life that I find fascinating, really fascinating.”

When asked what she believes to be the biggest problem facing youth today, Lisa first mentions the statistics of Mission Australia’s regular surveys and studies into young people, where the same issues come up very often, usually relating to family issues, family breakdowns; self-esteem issues, body image; and substance abuse. “But I think today… it’s a very interesting world that we live in now… we’re so, in some ways, so much more connected than we ever have been with…But in some ways I think we’re also more disconnected than we ever have been”. Lisa believes this in the sense that, because of all this technology, people are often very isolated, in their own world – “and that can be a very small world, you know” – and become disconnected from the world outside.

Lisa believes that her work has given her “a privileged and quite a unique position” in the sense that she gets to listen to people tell her their stories in all their complexity, all their positive and challenging aspects, and that having this remarkable insight into other people’s lives has gifted her with a huge degree of respect for human capacity. She claims to have been made a more tolerant person now that her experiences have given her the ability to understand why a person might react or behave the way they do, rather than doing the easy thing and criticising that person instead.

Lisa acknowledges that people who are in her line of work can become jaded by what they see and do: “it can be an affirming thing or quite a crushing, defeating thing”. Lisa is one of those who see the positivity and the good in what they have experienced, and allows that to help them continue working to make others see the good in their own lives.

“I guess it has opened my eyes to how amazing people are and their capacity to rise above stuff and also to really shine, and the capacity of young people to really be creative.”

Words: Kelson Hunter

Photo: Sean Porter

36. Sam Hamilton

18 Feb

greenstickI spoke with Sam Hamilton a couple of weeks prior to the debut of his miniseries, Greenstick. During our chat I became extremely excited (and impatient) to watch the show. I thought it would be best to watch the debut episode of Greenstick first before writing up our interview. It was a two-parter that ended on a cliffhanger, so I waited till the next episode to find out more. Guess what happened? I got sucked in, again…

It’s now been a good two months since the finale of season one, and I’ve only just collected my thoughts and put the proverbial pen to paper. In a way, my slackness is a compliment – I just really liked Greenstick.

Sam is a driving force behind the show. He wrote the script and produced the miniseries. To get it off the ground, Sam started a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible to raise a modest sum. The funding target was exceeded, showing that there was real interest in a project like Greenstick.

Put simply, Greenstick is a web series based around the themes of youth depression and how young people deal with grief and loss. The substantial, homegrown cast includes characters who are 17 or 18 years old, they’ve just finished year 12 at high school and are trying to figure out where to go from there. Sam elaborates; “The show starts a few weeks after the characters finish high school. Suicide is a big theme of the show, and as a direct result of this we also try to cover themes of youth mental health and substance abuse.”

I asked Sam about his inspiration for the show. “Growing up, there weren’t that many shows I related to. I wanted to create a show that was relatable to older teenagers.” Pondering some more, Sam added; “Every single story (in Greenstick) is drawn from personal experience, even if it is often embellished in some way. I think a show like this would have been really useful for me at that time.”

Growing up, Sam was always interested in writing, but it took some time for him to get serious. “From year 11 onwards I started putting together proper pieces, beforehand it was mainly bits and pieces, mostly embarrassing stuff!”

When talking about the future, Sam has a clear goal. “My main ambition would be to write for a commercial television series, or be a producer.”

In the meantime, Sam hosts a radio show on Syn FM, which he likens to a real life episode of Greenstick. “People call in about a variety of things, some of it is pretty heavy; we talk about topics like mental illness and sex, mainly with a youth focus.”

Sam has the ability to pull the community together, evidenced by the fact that I didn’t interview Sam alone, Greenstick actresses; Laura Lillywhite and Felicity Townsend joined us, illustrating the group effort that made Greenstick a reality. Felicity quipped; “Sam sourced volunteer make-up artist and graphic designers to help with the show, everyone pulled together to make it happen.”

In the time post my interview with Sam, Felicity and Laura, I’ve been keeping up with all things Greenstick. A second series has been promised. I for one, am looking forward to it.

You can watch episode one here.

Like Greenstick on Facebook.

Words: Carl Thompson

Photo: Sean Porter

35. Luci Zhao

11 Feb


Lucy Zhao is a natural communicator; she talks with you rather than at you, and manages to gently express her point of view without being self righteous or insincere. The nineteen year old Melbournian was one of the original members of the Banyule Youth Participation Network. After attending a Youth Forum to “voice the opinion of the youth in the Banyule area”, she discovered her passion for motivating others to engage in social justice issues.  From there, “it was merely a matter of finding the outlet…the council allowed me to do that.”

Since then, she’s been involved with the 2013 Roadtrip to End Poverty, the YMCA Murray Marathon, the Oaktree Foundation, Y-Lead Mentoring Network and motivational speaking in schools – all the while building the “foundations” for her career by studying Accounting at university and working as the Social Media Manager for Joy Cupcakes.

In March 2013 she spent time “travelling across Australia with thousands of young ambassadors on the Roadtrip to End Poverty, to give young people the opportunity to talk to the public when they don’t usually do so to such a [large scale] degree. Personal contact breaks down barriers…that constantly stop us from doing what we want.”

Can you describe your own involvement in the road trip?

I graduated year 12 with not the best ATAR… Before the end of school I applied to be an ambassador for the road trip and they reviewed and accepted my application and I was lucky enough to join that national team. So from then on I was working as their Ambassador Events Officer, so that was doing the logistics end, the creative side of things for our Sydney events. I’m in their national communications team so I managed their logistics and communications for their tenth anniversary.

How do you motivate others to get involved?

I think a lot of it is dependent on the people you’re around and what you expose yourself to. [When I am] Speaking in schools, I’d have that one-on-one experience with as many people as I possibly can because I think it’s so important to get behind something – even if it’s not values we agree on , I think it’s great to get a different side on things. [Young people] are going through that identity phase and that self-realisation phase and I think it’s merely a matter on exposing them to the right environment, not to dictate what they do should be doing in life or thinking about.

At the end of the day there is no right or wrong, it’s about influencing them onto the right path. I am a strong believer that nothing is caused by anything externally because it’s your life so you get to choose. I am pretty determined to talk to as many people as I can and getting their voice out there.

How can young people do that?

It starts off with finding what they want to do and then it’s as simple as asking a friend, a teacher or a mentor. The Council’s great with anything like that as that they’re so reliant on their youth to generate work so it’s so important for them to go to schools. Even something as simple as our social networking, there are so many opportunities these days … I think the only barriers are peers or themselves. For them to motivate themselves it’s as simple as doing research or asking a friend – being proactive!

What made you want to address social injustice?

I was exposed to a school environment where everything was so self-absorbed and I could recognise that. I was actually brought to the issue of child sex slavery by a teacher and instantly… it touched something in me and from then I was looking up videos and articles and gaining work experience in those kinds of organisations but they’re really hard to get on to.  I’ve also remained quite persistent…I was the Social Services Prefect in Year 12 and we organised a benefit concert and we raised $65,000 in four weeks for clean drinking resources in Kenya and other underdeveloped countries so it was a huge achievement. In terms of actual exposure, it’s more reading articles and watching videos, etc. to finite all my knowledge on it and tackle particular issues. It’s been quite self-driven, how I want to go about it all.

How do you balance so many commitments?

Balancing everything is definitely hard. I am fortunate enough to believe I have the capacity to do it. I’ve had ‘crash and burn’ moments [in the past]… it is difficult but I think it depends on drive and self-motivation, I listen to motivational talkers online I find they really do help, spark something in me that makes me wanting to do more.

I don’t like to pass down opportunities, there are opportunities I will take no matter what because I think it’s worth a shot at the end of the day, such as I was head hunted to be a beauty adviser for a luxury brand – I know nothing about beauty!- and I gave it a go for a solid four months and I found beauty and retail weren’t my thing. I look back now and I am glad I gave it a go, if I didn’t I wouldn’t know what it’d be like and I would have passed over an opportunity not everyone is given, and I am all for taking on opportunities. I feel why waste something that’s right in front of you?

What do your family think about you undertaking so much volunteer work? 

I am constantly bombarded by my loved ones saying ‘why are you doing this? You’re not even getting paid for it’. But I don’t mind, it’s the experience that I’ve gained – you can’t find opportunities like this, places so willing to give it to an eighteen year old whose just finished high school and doesn’t have a degree. It’s so rewarding.

What does that future hold?

I have my future planned out with ‘this is what I want to do, what I want to end up [with]’. My friend was saying that it’s quite natural in an Asian culture to go through everything really fast, to go through a life so fast but never have time to reflect on it.

I want time to reflect on where I can go from there. I want to build the foundations for a potential for-profit [organisation], and continuing my studies. I like to keep myself busy, I really do. Which can be bad because I need to not do something every now and then. And hopefully go into schools to do more motivational speaking.


 Words: Rachael Ward

Picture: Sean Porter

34. Amma Boakye

21 Jan

_MG_9964-EditBorn and raised in Australia, Amma Boakye’s upbringing was no different to the majority of teenagers her age. Although a trip to Ghana with her family in 2002 completely changed Amma’s perspective of the world.

As we sat down for an interview, the seventeen year-old Loyola College student described what the current situation in Ghana is like. “The country itself is breathtakingly beautiful,” she said, “although it lacks many basic services such as a good public health system and easily accessible roads.”

Amma’s parents, Cecilia Yeboah and Nana Boakye were both born in Ghana so the trip in 2002 was the first since their settlement in Australia. Being their first trip, Amma says that the experience was a culture shock for her and her siblings as they were all used to the Australian norms. “We found the Ghanian culture, which is completely different, a little confronting,” she said.

As overwhelming as the experience was, she believes that it was just as educational and insightful. “I saw Ghana as a country with great potential for future development,” she said, “because of its access to natural resources like gold, cocoa and fertile land.”

Amma’s aunty lives in a rural town near one of Ghana’s larger cities called Seikwa. According to Amma, the journey there was long, bumpy and rough. “A trip by car which should have taken about 15 minutes ended up taking about an hour due to poor road conditions,” she said.

On arrival, Amma’s family was surprised to discover that her aunty, Veronica Appiah- Kubi and uncle, Akwasi Appiah- Kubi were the sole basic medical care providers for the small community including maternal and child health. Amma’s aunty is a qualified midwife and a nurse practitioner, but almost all of the services that she was giving were free of charge.

With little financial support, the funds come from Veronica and Akwasi’s own pockets. “Witnessing the simple care provided by my aunty, my parents initiated their support by donating some money to help my aunty with the great work that she was doing,” Amma said.

“After our visit, my parents continued to periodically send donations,” she said, “although on our second visit to Ghana, I came up with the idea to create a charity organisation to help with the running costs and improve the condition for my aunty and her few helpers.”

Since returning back to Australia, Amma has kept her promise to pursue this charity. “My involvement in the charity is, through networking with friends and their friends, and also other experienced charity workers, is locating and contacting organisations who are able and willing to support us by donating money or healthcare equipments,” she said.

Every two years, Amma and her family return to Ghana to deliver the goods and funds that they have collected through their charity, Nyarkoh Family Health Fund. Amma says that these goods may include nappies for the infants, stethoscopes and other medical tools and of course, money to help them support themselves.

Leading a busy lifestyle, it’s surprising that Amma is able to fit the charity work into her schedule. Although she said that she is relieved that her friends offer their support for the charity whenever they can, often assisting in contacting local businesses.

Amma has just completed her year 11 studies and is currently enjoying her final holidays before she begins year 12. She admits that she is a very creative person, so subjects such as textiles and studio arts will be a breeze. With two languages already under her belt, Indonesian is another subject that Amma says she should do well in.

“I usually dedicate my spare time to sports such as athletics and basketball but have stopped participating regularly to try and keep up with my school load,” she said. She has also completed drama and acting lessons over the duration of the year.

When asked what she wants to do when she’s older, Amma has more direction than most. “I have always dreamed of becoming a professional actress,” she said, “but I wouldn’t mind going into the law profession due to the social justice appeal of it.”

Amma is a strong believer in charity work and endeavors to encourage more Australians to get involved. “Charity work could possibly be the very thing that makes people feel worthy in society and therefore turn into better people,” she said. “I think it’s something that would help them appreciate what they already have and make them generally more sympathetic to the needs of others.”

Amma’s ambitions are certainly not minor. She plans to take a break from the charity throughout year 12, but will resume straight after, hoping to expand and develop it to achieve more to help not only Ghana but the whole of West Africa. “I believe that if more Australians were involved in charities, we would be a step closer to making, restoring and creating world peace.”

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photo: Sean Porter

32. Sonni and Nathan

13 Nov

_MG_0025-EditIt’s an infrequent happening for one to live through the glee of others; in fact in this case it’s just as rare because I know of two beings that do so. Nathan and Sonni, both 24, have a knack of bringing people joy. More specifically, joy to those living in the West Heidelberg area-many of whom having a mutual love of basketball. For the past few months the basketball thriving duo have given the local teens and young adults of West Heidelberg, the opportunity to play Friday night basketball without the heavy cost of club memberships. Taking temporary base at the local half courts, the boys had soon discovered a shared love in the thrill of casual basketball and were surprised to have a high demand in players. With popularity of the group on the rise and inviting arms to those willing to join, Sonni and Nathan now hire out a court at the Olympic Leisure centre for 2 hours every Friday night. This has become an easy option for sport lovers in the area who may be living with financial, family and life struggles or for those who simply have a love for the game. Their weekly group of around 15-20 players ranging from 15-26 years of age, have become an honourable team in the self-titled program, ‘Hoop Dreams.’

Growing up in the suburb of 3081 had its share of lows for the boys, “We grew up in a rough area,” says Nathan. “As a kid I never liked growing up in West Heidelberg,” Sonni explains, “Some days I used to go to school with no lunch and remember saying, I wonder if we’re sleeping at another house tonight.” Whilst living in a big family, Sonni prioritised, thinking about his mother and being a role model for his younger siblings. However basketball arose as a silver lining for his own personal gratification. Both Sonni and Nathan found sanctuary in the passion of the game and so they lived many positive childhood memories through the sport even when surrounded by negativity. At a young age Nathan was diagnosed with Leukaemia and relied on basketball to fish him out of the depression of the illness, “When I was sick as a kid it got me from strength to strength and motivated me to get better.”

Throughout their high school lives, close friends Nathan and Sonni remember playing with the old basketball team Banksia Bulls. The community team was an easy program to be a part of and remained a strong tie of teamwork between the local players. Though years flew by and sadly the Bulls were no longer. Post high school, the two B-ball fanatics missed the game and the communal buzz of the suburb and so an idea stemmed from their two minds, the seed of an idea which would soon become the league of ‘Hoop Dreams.’ “Basketball kind of kept us all together [it] was one of those things that unified us rather than segregated us,” Nathan says.

With a sense of reminiscent integration of the game, Sonni realised a purpose for goodness was on the loom for their hometown. “We used to bag our own neighbourhood, but you’ve got to stop doing that, you’ve got to help it instead!” And so the tag team of old time friends were unanimous in the decision to give the residents of West Heidelberg “something to do.”

Sonni and Nathan hold onto the aspiration of allowing future generations the chance to do something greater than participate in the mischief throughout their neighbourhood. “Today there’s nothing. The area’s full of drugs, full of violence, full of trouble. All the bad stuff just makes your life turn upside down,” Nathan says, “We know the struggle, we know what it’s like.”  And so, with priority for the forthcoming generations, Nathan and Sonni now strive to give people of the area a purpose and hobby that will also guarantee safety and warmth from the community team. “Our idea is to bring basketball back,” Sonni exclaims.

The boys have now established an environment free of intimidation or competition, Hoop Dreams is a team built on growth, determination and solidity. With support from local organisations and in receipt of local grants, Hoop Dreams has become a stable program growing with each step, ”We’ve even got uniforms on the way,” Nathan declares triumphantly.

Although the boys of the basketball loving duo are not currently working, they rely purely on themselves to run the program with no outside help from the players involved. “We want to give them something to look forward to on a Friday night.”

With a well-structured two hour program of training and games, Sonni and Nathan cater for the needs of anyone interested in skill gaining exercises or for the adrenaline rush of the game itself. Both Nathan and Sonni are thrilled to see the eagerness of those involving themselves with Hoop Dreams. With newly found titles as mentors, the boys encourage all to “Hang out with us,” rather than dabble in misfortune on the streets. Sonni says, “From five till seven [o’clock], for those two hours, they can get away from any problems at home or school or any little thing.” Sonni and Nathan have already proved themselves worthy of honour in their community as respectable young men striving to give others the lifestyle choice of safety, joy and teamwork. The Banyule City council also find the two deserving of the immense amount of praise given to them for their efforts and for the establishment of Hoop Dreams, but I believe it all comes down to a purpose. After spending a couple of hours in the presence of these two gleaming coaches, I was certain that Sonni and Nathan shared a life purpose, and that was to bring others utter fulfilment and purpose of their own. After withstanding hardships of their own, the boys are just glad that they’re there to give others something better to do.

Words By:Peta Petidis

Photo by: Sean Porter

31. Luke Nelson

30 Oct

31 Luke Nelson

He has the voice of a radio announcer, and the passion of an advocate. His name is Luke Nelson and he has been a Banyule resident for the majority of his life.  Indeed, I interview him for this piece at his home in Watsonia, a home once belonging to his Grandpa Jim and which he now shares with an able-bodied friend through the Independence Australia (formerly HRSS) Homeshare Program. His family have known his neighbours for fifty years.

Listening to him talk, I am filled with a mixed sense of pride and awe at how much he has achieved since we attended the same primary school in Greensborough. He attended Loyola for a term before moving to a special school and day service for five years to complete his education. Despite medical advice that Luke would be a vegetable all his life, these days Luke regularly speaks at a variety of disability organisations, and conferences (most recently at the University of Melbourne), at times consulting on disability projects such DisabilityCare (previously the National Disability Insurance Scheme). He is also involved with reference groups and public speaking – a short time ago he conducted disability awareness training for the local fire brigade.  Currently he has a website and business cards in development advertising his own business, Luke Out Loud. The business will encompass public speaking, an access blog, and motivational videos, but his main pursuit will be working as a consultant on disability projects.

Luke’s career as a public/motivational speaker proceeds very organically. It is a word of mouth job, which is sometimes really quiet, and at other times busy. He began by cold calling disability organisations to introduce himself. Now he has reached a level where a lot of the time people ring him. The remuneration he receives for his work is quite variable, at times he volunteers, other times he is paid or compensated for his travel through taxi vouchers. Though it’s not about the money for Luke, he insists he is merely giving back to the sector which has given him so much ‘every time I go and talk to people, or do something on the disability field… the sector has given me tools and every time I give something back to people who haven’t had those opportunities and tell them what is available out there and what people can achieve, I feel like a billionaire. The individuals I help and the companies I educate…if I can walk out of the room and someone says, “I’ve learnt something”, that’s my payment.’ Life experience is the key to Luke’s expertise, for example, ‘I’ve been through the ISP (Individual Support Package) system, so I know what to look for, and I’ve been through some of your pain.’ An ISP is a funding package available to people with disabilities which covers support needs or equipment required as a result of disability. It allows the person to take control over what help they receive, and direct their own funding in ways which assist them to achieve life goals.

Luke is careful not to use the word ‘disability’ in his speeches, preferring to use ‘posibilities’ and encouraging people to instead consider what a person with a disability can contribute to their life and community if able to work and/or socialise. Luke’s motivation stems from his experience that expectations for people with disabilities aren’t as high as they should be; he believes they can be a lot higher. His philosophy is that if you can’t do something, find what drives you to do that activity and ask if there is another way of fulfilling that core desire or being part of that community.  He concentrates on the concept of using your disability to your advantage.

After visiting the US at age thirteen, he returned with a strong sense of injustice – why doesn’t Australia have the same standards of physical access? – along with a  stronger sense of purpose. His life mission is to change the people living with disabilities perspectives of their own strengths, weaknesses and capabilities as well as society’s general view of disability.

Luke was introduced to Youth Disability Advocacy Service around four to five years ago, and clearly he has found his calling, ‘I’ll be doing this for the next twenty to forty years. If I don’t want to do it, I won’t, but I will always be an advocate. It’s about the fact you can change people’s lives.’ His professional heroes are those who devote their lives to achieving inclusion.  For example: institutions for people with disabilities are viewed negatively by a vast majority of people in today’s disability sector, seen as places of segregation which do not provide  the full opportunity for intergration into the community and  many of which offer a substandard level of care. When describing one of his heroes, Luke explains, ‘he shut down an institution, and that takes guts, and his approach…not letting go. He’s been doing this for thirty years.’

So when is enough enough? ‘My biggest goal is to make our jobs obsolete, to walk into a room and for people to say, we don’t need you anymore because we know how to treat people with disabilities, we know how to support them, we know how to put access into houses, we know what the funding’s like. The day that that happens will be the day that I rejoice, the day that I’ve done my job. But in a sad reality’, Luke says solemnly, ‘you will never have that situation, one thing goes away another crops up. Something I get frustrated that people are not already informed about things like disability awareness training.’ Luke says we need to continually ask,  ‘what can we do to keep disability on the edge? What can we do to make things better?’

Luke is cautiously optimistic about the future of people with disabilities, both in terms of the funding they will receive and treament and  inclusion by the wider society: ‘I have great respect for the dawning of DisabilityCare.  It is a relief, but this is not a magic wand, it’s not going to solve everything and cover everything. Let’s be realistic, governments change, money may be allocated somewhere else.’  Relief seems to be the overriding emotion though because ‘it means our colleagues have done their job the best they can.’

If in power, the first item on Luke’s agenda  would be to put an extreme punishment on lack of disabled access, ‘…for the fact of exclusion, just to see what would happen, how many people would change their perspective, just to see how tough you’d have to be to make it all accessible so you’re guaranteed that a person with a disability could enter.’ After the punishment, the offending owner of the building should need to reapply for their venue licence.

When asked what he feels about the future of disability, Luke says ‘Attitudes are changing for the better but I am sceptical in some respects, society is still afraid, I believe, of people with disabilities though it is being eradicated slowly.

As for his key message to the general public? ‘Look at the person first, look at the possibility, look at how the person interacts. Look at the disability second, look at the individual first. If you can do that, then there’s nothing to fear.’

Words By:Nicole Smith

Photo by: Sean Porter

29. Laura Muir

24 Jul

29 Laura Muir“The biggest thing you can do for your country is to give your life defending it…”

This is one of the first statements which Laura Muir proudly proclaimed when I sat down to interview her. One would be impressed if they heard this from a seasoned veteran, let alone a teenage girl with a passion for serving her country. Laura, a member of 402 Squadron Air Force Cadets, dreams of becoming an Air Traffic Controller or IT Specialist with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Through the Banyule 100 initiative, I had the fantastic opportunity to meet and interview Laura Muir, the successful recipient of the 2012-2013 Living Spirit Fellowship initiative facilitated by the Greensborough RSL. Impressively, Laura is the first year 11 candidate to have won the Fellowship out of a field of over fifty applicants from 14 schools in the region. Encouraged by her Deputy Principal and mentor Mr Tony Chirico and supported by Loyola College, Laura decided to undertake the application for this Fellowship. At first, whilst completing her exams, Laura felt the daunting magnitude of the application. As a testament to her character, she not only “became intrigued” and “couldn’t stop” researching, she also excelled enough to win this trip of a lifetime. Soon enough, delegates from the Greensborough RSL would be arriving at Loyola College to congratulate her in front of her fellow students for becoming the next winner of the Living Spirit Fellowship.

Laura admits that she was excited for the journey, as she cannot help but to “love an adventure.” After landing in Bangkok in the early hours of the morning, the following day Laura’s journey truly began. Firstly, she arrived at Kanchanburi War Cemetery, roughly two hours north-west of Bangkok. Here she was subjected to the sight of over 6,000 graves – most of whom were Australian, British or Dutch soldiers.

Subsequently, she underwent a small group service at ‘Cholera Hill’ – the F Force POW Camp site where many Australians perished at the hands of this infectious disease due to malnutrition and enforced squalor. With regards to this, Laura has made an extremely poignant assessment:

“Family members laid a cross and said a prayer before placing individual poppies at  the base of the cross.  It was a heartbreaking moment. We heard stories of courage and mateship, as Diggers volunteered to care for their mates suffering from Cholera and ensure they were not left alone.  These Diggers knew they were at extreme risk of catching Cholera too, but refused to leave their mates. Everyone on the tour was a son, daughter, wife or brother of a POW or a serviceman. Words cannot explain how I felt visiting these locations, learning about the war, the horror and suffering of the POWs and their loved ones.  A constant question in my mind was how could a human-being treat another human-being like this? As an Australian, I was humbled to stand where Allied POWs and local civilians built by hand, a 245km railway for the Japanese. The men were tortured, beaten and murdered. Numerous stories of mateship and bravery brought many a tear.”

It was at this point that the raw emotion experienced “hit [Laura] at once.”

Throughout Laura’s entire pilgrimage there is a recurrent theme – “words cannot describe.” She’s entirely correct, one cannot conjure a phrase, or any amount of words which accurately portrays the gravity of the plight that the Australian (in addition to the British and Dutch) POWs suffered.

Laura soon attended a Dawn Service at Hellfire Pass – a pass cut through rock entirely by hammer and chisel, where it is said by locals that the haunting echoes of the ‘hammer and tap’ will forever endure. Here, after having traced the footsteps of Australia’s ancestors, Laura and her company laid a wreath to commemorate and honour Australia’s fallen soldiers. Laura listened to an especially emotional rendition of the Last Post by two Thai Army buglers, whilst Bagpipes echoed throughout the entire pass as dawn broke over the chiselled rock. When describing this scene to me, she spoke of pure “amazement” – this was the point of her journey in which her jaw dropped and an epiphany was reached. This is without doubt a moment which will forever be etched in her memory.

Following this, Laura attended a ceremony at Kanchanburi War Cemetery. She was taken aback by the sheer amount of foreign delegates such as Canadians, Swedes and Spaniard who had made the pilgrimage to pay their respects to the Australian, British and Dutch fallen heroes. This reverence exhibited by dignitaries from countries which had little to do with the Thai-Burma Railway serves as a testament to the respect commanded by these fallen soldiers.

This journey had provoked an epiphany and altered Laura’s mindset. She stated to me that she had gained a “better appreciation” and upon returning was “more grateful” for the life she had been given, a life which may not have been possible without the sacrifices of those whom she was honouring. Thus, fuel was added to her burning desire to serve her nation, instilling deep within her a “[pride in] what [she] wants to do.”

After detailing her experiences to me, I asked Laura to sum up her extraordinary journey in one word – “Proud” she stated humbly. She is proud of those who have served this nation past and present, she is proud of those who accompanied her to commemorate their fallen heroes, she is proud of the mateship which superseded the horror experienced on the Thai Burma Railway, and this without doubt makes her proud to be Australian and proud to follow the footsteps of the Australian POWs in Thailand.

I for one am proud of a young leader and idol such as Laura so willing to serve our nation and honour our history. She is an exemplar of honour and integrity and our country should see her as a valuable asset.

Words: Jake Breheny

Photo: Sean Porter