Tag Archives: Sean Porter

47. Nadeesha Fernandez

30 Apr

47. Nadeesha Fernandez b

Overseas volunteering attracts a lot of criticism. It often centres on the dangers of volunteers landing in faraway villages with an exciting ‘whoosh’, only to shortly take off again in a puff of dust.

Nadeesha Fernandez spent almost four months volunteering at the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala, Colombo District, Sri Lanka. She tells me of how she left Australia amidst the above criticism from the people around her, with many expressing serious doubts over whether her volunteer work would be effective at all. Though valid concerns, the rigorous assessment processes of the organisation’s staff, in conjunction with Nadeesha’s own determination to offer practical outcomes rendered the probability of becoming a ‘helicopter volunteer’ impossible.

A prominent reason for this is that Piliyandala is an unsuitable place for voluntourists looking for light-hearted fun. The area is separated from the city and is certainly not a tourist hotspot. Nadeesha describes the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala as comprising of roughly 10 houses in a village-type commune, where about 160 children orphaned from the tsunami or the civil war now reside. Nadeesha explains that these children are cared for by village ‘mothers’, who welcome them into a SOS family and send them to the local SOS primary and secondary schools where other children from the local community also attend.

The bulk of Nadeesha’s time at the Children’s Village was spent teaching English to the local children, women and adults across various settings and her students often came from very poor or violent backgrounds. She recalls the jolt of nerves on her first day of teaching after abruptly being told, “Okay, here’s your class, do what you have to do”. Nadeesha initially had no idea what she ‘had to do’, but worked it out quickly in a very unfamiliar environment. She resisted the temptation to simply play games with the students, and ensured each English activity was practical and relevant to their everyday lives. Walking past Nadeesha’s classroom, you could often hear her telling her students, “No no no, we’ll do work and then we’ll play”.

In kindergarten, Nadeesha wrote scripts for children’s plays which she used as a practical way to teach the children English. Nadeesha remembers when the children performed a play she had written in English, telling me, “It was a really proud moment… it was a continuous period of time that I was training them to do something…. It was great to see that they had actually succeeded”.

Her desire to teach English stemmed from its practical use within a Sri Lankan context. English is incredibly useful in Sri Lanka – it opens opportunities for employment, community engagement, education and even overseas employment opportunities. So, Nadeesha also taught teenagers, adults and mothers about the application of English for job interviews and worked on their confidence in applying it to various situations. Incredibly, she also learned the local language, Sinhala, in order to connect to her students more.

Though the thrill of this new experience was exhilarating, it carried its fair share of challenges. Nadeesha became very sick and suffered from constant heat headaches and a complete depletion of all energy. She tells me she also felt uncomfortable at times. Despite having a Sri Lankan background herself, she says she “Stuck out like a sore thumb” because of her unusually short hair which she had cut short to make it easier to wash. Language miscommunications similarly resulted in moments of awkwardness, for example when she accidentally told someone “Don’t worry me!” instead of “Don’t worry”, only to find out about her error later on. Nadeesha cackles with laughter as she reminisces over this. She also tells me that despite these challenges and many others, she was determined to persevere in her teaching.

Here the murmurs of critics come to mind… ‘But do these English classes actually pay off?’ one can imagine them asking. The simple answer? Yes, they can. Nadeesha shares the story of one Sri Lankan woman from the SOS Children’s Village who was actually brought over to the UK to work as a nanny by one volunteer because her English was so outstanding. And there are many other similar stories. The staff at the SOS Children’s Village were also diligent in ensuring the English teaching program Nadeesha was a part of was effective. Senior staff and educational directors of the organisation often interviewed her and monitored her classroom teaching.

Nadeesha was also mindful of the impact of her connection to village life regarding the relationships she developed with local community members. She tells me, “We built these amazing relationships… I didn’t think it was fair to just come into their lives and just leave, they are now my family and I need to visit them”. For now, Nadeesha keeps in contact through letter writing and is saving money to return back to the SOS Children’s Village.

I ask her towards the end of our interview why she chose to teach English despite the criticism which so often accompanies it. Her response made perfect sense, “I could have built schools or something…but I chose education… I’m interested in child protection and I want to work with kids. What’s the most important thing for children at that age? Learning.”

To end our interview, Nadeesha produces an equally as effective response to questions of how short volunteering trips can possibly be expected to ‘make a difference’. Her response comes in the form of a story about a boy throwing star fish back into the ocean from the shore. A man notices him doing this and asks, “Why are you bothering to return them when you can only throw one back at a time?”. The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back out to sea, and says, “Well I sure made a difference to that one”.

Words: Stephanie Livingstone

Picture: Sean Porter


46. Olivia Watson

3 Mar


It is easy to picture the typical ‘volunteer’ photo: a beaming westerner surrounded by a flock of locals eagerly competing for the camera’s attention. Though Olivia Watson has achieved an incredible amount volunteering overseas, not one of her photos mimic this image. Olivia’s volunteering experiences have been grounded as equally in an eagerness to contribute to community development as they have been in mindful awareness to do this appropriately and effectively, and not simply follow in the footsteps of other volunteers.

Olivia’s entrée into community development began with a mission trip to the Phillipines in 2012 with a group from the St. Francis Xavier parish. Her mother and 10 other mothers and children ventured off to help communities in Manila and Cebu, which Olivia describes as the catalyst for setting her off on a “path of helping other people”.

They brought with them soap, books and pencils, as well as donations which had been fundraised in Melbourne to be brought over to the local schools. Olivia warmly reminisces over her experiences interacting with the children at the local school and orphanages and becoming culturally immersed.

Each time I ask Olivia to elaborate on the most significant moments of her time in the Phillipines, her responses continually pivot around human connection. She recalls for me one of her fondest memories of the whole village coming together at a school oval. Everyone sung each others’ anthems and “forgot where they were from”. Olivia tells me, “The thing that was most enjoyable was connecting with kids our own age, but in a different environment… I admire their strength and compassion towards others”.

It wasn’t all peaches and sunshine, however. Encountering the realities of poverty became extremely “hard hitting”, particularly being witness to the conditions of the slums and being told personal stories of poverty. Integrating back into western life after being exposed to this was not easy, “It was hard to get back into the routine of knowing there was poverty over in the Phillipines… I went through a stage where I thought I wanted to close myself off from the world a little bit”. The wheels of Olivia’s volunteering had certainly been set in motion though, and these challenges did not deter her from future volunteering opportunities. In fact, that same year she was organising and transporting clothes, books and board games to Fiji where she visited with two family friends and their son for more volunteer work.

After volunteering in the Phillipines, Olivia rapidly developed an awareness of the need for ongoing support for communities after participating in poverty reduction efforts. She recalls, “It was very hard to come back to Australia and forget about everything. I knew I had to do something”. After returning, Olivia collaborated with a teacher at her school, Catholic Ladies’ College, on a fundraising project selling free range eggs to raise funds for Gentle Hands, the orphanage she had previously visited in Manila. Remarkably, herself and her teacher Joanne Notting from Catholic Ladies’ college raised $1,500 for Gentle Hands.

Determined to learn more about poverty reduction, she then set her sights on Kenya, Africa, where she participated in a cultural immersion and community development program with other students from Catholic Ladies’ College. Olivia paints a vibrant picture of the culture for me: lots of energetic singing and dancing, Kenyan rice-based dishes and traditional wooden houses with African mums referred to as ‘Mummas’. She tells me, “I had to pinch myself every day”, but still actively practiced being culturally respectful – something so many well-intentioned young volunteers overseas inadvertently disregard. In Kenya, Olivia and her classmates visited an HIV/AIDS centre for children who either had HIV or whose parents were infected, and visited the local schools.

The classrooms had blackboards, wooden desks and about 50 students to each class. Olivia affectionately casts her mind back to the local students speaking to her in Swahili, before erupting into laughter as Olivia and the other girls could only react with blank, confused faces. Olivia also tells me about the Tree of Life activity they did with the students, where everyone spoke about their families and shared their goals and dreams. I listen in shock as she informs me that herself and the other girls involved in the immersion raised over $14,000 before leaving for Kenya, which was then donated to the school for ovens to cook meals for the children and for other vital facilities. The current of maturity still running through her recollections, she tells me knowing exactly where the donations were going was a huge relief and very important to her, “Actually seeing where the money is going gives me satisfaction knowing I’m trying my best to help the people who really need it”.

In a well-deserved recognition of her achievements, Olivia received the 2012 Catholic Ladies’ College Community Service Award, presented by local councillor Steve Herbert, and also received it again in 2013.

It’s not only Olivia’s achievements that should be applauded though. It’s also her perception of what really matters in volunteering overseas which diverges from the norm as much as her photos do. Firstly, her trips overseas were not undertaken with the common assumption that she actually could contribute just because she was a volunteer. Olivia was more concerned about community members’ views on volunteering, worrying that they might have thought “Here we go again…more volunteers…we don’t need them”. She also believes commitment is vital after undertaking any volunteering, “It’s all good if you’re going over there…and taking photos with kids… but once you decide to head to a place like that you need to commit”. She offers advice for other volunteers to “Think about what you can really achieve” and commit to that, and to “Have one goal and stick to that goal… that one goal can spread out and continue to grow”.

Overall, Olivia’s approach to volunteering is grounded in one very wise motto, “You may not be able to change the world, but you can change someone’s world”. If her amazing track record so far is anything to go by, I’d say Olivia is brilliantly equipped to do just that.

Words: Stephanie Livingstone

Picture: Sean Porter

45. Jess Sayers

17 Feb

_MG_3542-EditOnce you get her talking, there is no stopping her. Jess Sayers, 29, is a youth worker for the Banyule Youth Services and I would be impressed if you could find someone who loves their job more than she does.

She is involved in many Banyule youth programs and initiatives, but is most notably the facilitator of Street Art, a program run for young people designed to deter them from illegal graffiti.

Street Art is a crime prevention program, under our graffiti management strategy that encourages young people to participate in legal graffiti options,” she said.

“We have weekly workshops and every term we do legal murals. There are a few main core guys we see, it’s amazing seeing their journey and watching them grow.”

Jess says that her career choice was almost inevitable; she has always been savvy with young people. Her choice of career may have come organically, although it certainly didn’t come quickly.

“I actually had no idea what I wanted to do when I left high school,” she said. “I decided to do disability studies at university once I finished school, but I didn’t love it, so I stayed for a year and then went travelling.”

Once she returned back to reality (after just under a year travelling Europe- how amazing), Jess did some soul searching and decided she wanted to do something that helped people.

“I’ve coached netball my whole life and loved it more than anything,” she said. “I made a lot of great relationships with the young girls there, and they were always naturally drawn to me to discuss any issues they had.”

Jess finally found her calling, she wanted to work with young people. “I didn’t even know that youth work was a thing,” she said, “but after enrolling in a community services course at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT), all of my options all of a sudden became a lot clearer.”

Her passion is contagious. She gushes with pride and excitement when she talks about her job. No conversation is dull when it is with Jess, she is incredibly bubbly and energetic, you can’t help but want to open up to her.

Jess completed her Diploma of Welfare and began placement with the Banyule Youth Services, “and I’ve been her ever since!” she laughs. She’s only been full time with Banyule for a bit over two years, but in the meantime has worked there part time and with other councils, Nillumbik and Whittlesea.

“When I first started my placement at Banyule I was really fortunate because they were just about to start a Youth Summit. There was so much happening, so I was able to keep saying yes to everything.”

After that, Jess continued to help out at Banyule a couple of days a week, the remainder of her days spent at her other job, Subway. She has always been a hard worker, that’s for sure.

“Literally for about three to four years I was kept on at Banyule because of maternity leave positions, until I was finally offered a permanent position,” she said.

Since working at Banyule, Jess went back to university to complete a degree of youth work in her spare time.

Once Jess became an official member of the team, she started to get her own programs. One of her fondest programs was the young mother’s group.

“I loved working with the young mother’s group,” she said. “I liked the fact that the group was non judgemental and was a place young mums felt safe to be themselves and comfortable with their peers.”

“The main thing that I’ve been doing, that I love more than anything, is the Street Art program,” she said. “That’s probably been the biggest chunk of my role. I love it, it’s the best.”

“A lot of them don’t typically have a lot of family support, so after getting support from us, they’re able to link in and get jobs. If they are linked into something positive, like education or employment, then everything else seems to settle a bit around them.”

Jess says that there is no such thing as a typical day in the Banyule Youth Services’ office. “You definitely get the occasional day where you’re stuck in the office all day, but most of the time my day is jam packed with meetings, catch ups, seeing my individual support clients and getting out and about running the programs.”

When asked what her biggest accomplishment in her career so far would be, Jess couldn’t pinpoint one. “The main thing that comes to my head is seeing a young person grow and become confident and to accomplish things they never thought they could.”

“The most beneficial thing is seeing a young person reach a happy place and finally become content with life,” she said. “Even in Street Art, some of the boys dropped out of school really early but are now actually working full time and just kicking butt! They’re the sort of people that would have probably gone to drugs to cope with their problems, but they have learned to come and talk and use words to get through tough situations.”

Jess says that some of the hardest situations she has had to face as a youth worker are the deaths of young people. “They were really hard because you have had relationships with them and their families and it’s even harder because you are watching everyone else struggle to get through it and understand it.”

You would have a hard time finding someone more suited to their job than Jess. She is a self-confessed chatterbox and people person; young people love her just as much as she loves them.

In fact, she can’t ever resist the urge to help young people out. At the end of our interview she quizzed me about my future aspirations and after telling her that I was looking for a media internship, she hooked me up with a friend of a friend in the media industry. She lives and breathes her job.

And she’s not alone. Jess says that she works amongst a team of inspirational people. “There’s been some amazing people come through,” she said. “Everyone at Banyule is so diverse, with different, interesting stories to tell. They make coming to work every day easy.”

“I’m not young anymore, there are still occasions where I’m not sure whether my ideas will appeal to a younger demographic, but the best way is to get them involved. Unless you are actually going out and finding out what young people want, it doesn’t work.”

What’s next for the Banyule Youth Services and Jess herself? “Who knows really? We do plan ahead but there are always 100 things that just come up. We’ve got all of the Summit recommendations, so we want to start putting them into practice. I will keep working with the Street Art program, the older boys are now getting into mentor roles, which is really nice to see.”

Ironically, Jess will soon be taking maternity leave from the position she got through maternity leave vacancies. So there is room for a new mini-Jess to warm her seat until she gets back… At least one thing is for sure, they will have big shoes to fill.

Words: Joely Mitchell

Photos: Sean Porter

44. Maxine Matthews

18 Nov


‘I believe everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of who you are,’ Maxine Matthews says thoughtfully. She looks around affectionately at her home, the West Heidelberg Olympic Village and a proud smile curls onto her lips.

Having moved to West Heidelberg in the 1980s as a public housing tenant, Maxine has seen and heard it all living in and advocating for community safety and youth involvement in the area.

Before moving to the 3081 community, Maxine left Adelaide as a self-proclaimed ‘wild child’ who was always dodging trouble with the law.

‘I remember saying, no one’s going to tell me what to do,’ she laughs heartily, an infectious sound that places those in her presence immediately at ease.

However, after becoming involved in the local community, Maxine has become a dedicated volunteer. She has volunteered herself for services such as 3081 Community Safety Working Group and the Regional Tenants Council as a representative on a range of policy issues, including homelessness, housing, community safety and community health. Over the past 15 years, there has been an increase in agencies working in with the locals. In addition to these services, Maxine is also an advocate for youth wellbeing and safety.

Maxine believes that the younger community members are entitled to leading a good life. Despite having faced many hardships, it is important they just have to get up and give it a go.

‘Don’t sit inside and feel sorry for yourself, go make life what it is,’ Maxine advocates to the younger generation, who are being given more opportunities to make for a better life.

There is no doubt Maxine’s involvement with adults and children is much appreciated in the West Heidelberg Community. These actions have almost nicknamed her the ‘voice’ of the community, because of her natural ability to connect with others.

This gift of talking and listening has allowed Maxine to create a sense of belonging among the village. An activity such as the Community Garden helps build a strong sense of community as well as receiving a great reception. It is activities like this that bring the community together.

‘No one knows the area better than we, the locals do,’ she says smiling.

And Maxine knows what locals want and need. As a part of her volunteer work, Maxine has advocated the Olympia Project. The project will pull down 300 houses with the aim to rebuilding 600 in the West Heidelberg Olympic Village. Maxine is satisfied that residents are happy, safe and comfortable while the new homes are being built. The project is in its second phase, and is shaping up to be a success.

Despite being the first person to take on the Office of Housing and coming out successful, Maxine humbly describes how she still gets nervous talking publicly.

‘I love talking to people,’ says Maxine. ‘But even after all the speeches I’ve done I still get butterflies,’

However, it is her compassion for the West Heidelberg community that motivates her to keep giving the residents opportunities to create a sense of community among the village. Through her work, she has found a unique description for the community.

‘I call it Yin Yang,’ she explains, smiling. ‘Because for every bad, there is a good to balance it out,’

And Maxine has certainly brought a great deal of good to this community. After the death of a young community member, it was Maxine who organised a barbeque for the local young people to connect and grieve together.

This was the first time Maxine had organised an event like this, but felt something needed to be done for the emotions of young people who had lost a community member. Over 100 teenagers attended the event and Maxine describes how the whole time everyone was wholly respectful.

‘It’s hard for them (the younger generation), so many authorities are telling them what to do, but no one is there to listen to them,’ Maxine shares.

‘Sometimes, the best part is to listen, just sit there and listen,’ she says gently. It becomes clear in that moment that while Maxine is a vocal advocate, she is also a gentle listener willing to lend a hand in any way she is needed to.

Words: Liana Gangi

Photo: Sean Porter


43. Shruthi Vijai

1 Nov

_MG_3522-EditEver since she was a little girl Shruthi Vijai loved singing, and she had always harboured the dream of becoming a performer. Throughout her schooling years she was involved in school choirs, but was never really open about it because she considers herself to be “just your average girl stuck in a daydream,” she says, laughing. She started writing her own songs at age 14 after being bullied at school because it was the easiest way she could express her emotions and because she believes that “music speaks louder than words”. By 16 she had begun to teach herself how to play the guitar.

UK MURALI, a music director and playback singer involved in many independent films in Kollywood (Kollywood is the nickname given to the Tamil film industry in the area of Chennai in southern India) first discovered Shruthi after she posted a video on YouTube. The two-minute video of her singing Sunday Morning by Maroon 5 has since been taken down, but led to a chance to kick-start her dream career as a singer. “I don’t like labelling it because it makes it seem like a job, and I don’t ever want to think of it as something ‘I have to do’” she says thoughtfully when asked if she considers herself to be a singer or a performer.

On the 22nd of January 2014, Shruthi and her mum, Uma, were on a plane to India. When she got there, Shruthi had to sing in front of UK MURALI. “They wanted to see my vocal range and to check if it was really me singing in my video.” She decided to sing one of her personal favourite songs, Red by Taylor Swift, but also had to demonstrate that she could sing in Tamil. The song she ended up singing was Allegra featured in the movie Kandasamy, which she managed to learn in a day. Having heard the song, I can honestly say that is impressive because it is a very a very difficult song to learn.

From there, Shruthi entered into a whirlwind of a trip. She was asked to write ten songs, of which four were translated into Tamil. She spent a hectic few weeks in the studios recording. Some days stretched on and she was in the studio by 9 am and didn’t leave until 7 pm. Interspersed between these were performances, organised by UK MURALI, at weddings. Shruthi sang as part of a group with 2 other women and 2 men, a musical troupe organised by UK MURALI who sings at weddings quite often.

Shruthi went back in late April, which was earlier than was originally suggested. The months of February and March were spent writing songs and completing vocal training, which she still still does. The next tour was much more full on. Every day Shruthi was either recording, on tour or performing at weddings to groups of around 500 people. While recording, she didn’t perform any new songs but perfected the sound or the lyrics of what had been previously recorded. She performed in Sivakasi, Madurai, Manaparai and Chennai, and travelled between them by bus. Her longest trip was 12 hours to Sivakasi. “Oh man, there was no air conditioning,” she moans, letting her head fall into her hands.

All up she performed at 6 different places on the tour, with crowds ranging between 5,000 and 12-15,00 people. Her concert in Madurai was broadcast worldwide over RAJTV. Amongst all this however, Shruthi was still studying a Bachelor of Social Science (Psychology) with a major in forensics at Swinburne University. Despite the different time zone, she was still able to complete all her assignments on time.

Once back in Australia, Shruthi was contacted by Live It Up Promotions and asked to perform at a Whole Lotta Love on Lygon St. She was the second performer and performed 6 songs. She started with Sunday Morning by Maroon 5, then proceeded with I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz, Red by Taylor Swift, Sweater Weather by The Neighborhood, Classic by MKTO and finished with Crazier by Taylor Swift. Her love of music, in particular pop music is reflected in her own music which she describes as being a fusion of pop and Bollywood.

Since then, Shruthi has been contacted again for more recording with an unconfirmed chance of another tour in late November/early December. In the meantime she is continuing with her singing lessons and writing songs, though admits that doesn’t do it “as much as [she] would like to.”

In the future Shruthi would obviously like to be a singer in India and Australia, but she has a backup plan that is rather different, which is to become a forensic psychologist. Originally she wanted to do law and then get into forensics to correct injustices, but she then thought that she would be able to do something similar in forensic psychology. She also describes her fascination with how “someone can commit a crime without any remorse or guilt.”

Shruthi has a lot of different options open in her future and will make the most of whichever one she chooses to pursue.

Words: Charlotte Long

Photo: Sean Porter





42. Thomas Couch

17 Sep

tom_b100Thomas Couch looks friendly and confident as his picture is eagerly snapped for the accompanying photo for this interview. There is a humble manner to his smile as he strikes a pose. And while Tom smiles for the camera like any other male his age, in reality, the 25 year old becoming a successful entrepreneur, through his online project Course Camel.

Initiated by Tom over 3 years ago, Course Camel is an online website designed for students and those wanting to further study that has revolutionized the way people approach higher education in Australia. It is a resource that allows people to navigate through the endless amount of courses and, using clever tools, help decide which course is right for them.

While this concept may seem simple, anyone who has experienced VCE studies can tell you the procedure of deciding your future isn’t always this way. As a year 12 student of Marcellin College, Bulleen, Tom found himself endlessly wandering from career advisors, to reading lengthy university guides and unnecessarily stressing about his future.

Years down the track, Tom realised his friends still in VCE were experiencing the same negative thoughts towards finding tertiary education and found himself asking a quite simple question.

‘Wouldn’t it be easier if could filter out all the courses that I am ineligible for based on my VCE subjects, so I can actually focus on the ones I am suitable for?’

A simple question that Tom realised, no one could seem to answer. It was this that initially sparked the idea of Course Camel. To chop off huge amount of book that slows students down and stresses them out so they could only see information relevant to their study.

This idea is broadened on the website – prospective students can filter down all education options by their unique needs. This includes interests, locations, qualifications, government funding and much more. This makes finding a course an easier, simpler and not to mention less stressful process.

Although a graduated man now, Tom knows VCE can be tough, with motivation being difficult to keep if students don’t have a goal in place.

“I think it’s easier to be motivated if you have a goal,” Tom rationalises, conveying how he hopes Course Camel can help people find their goal and be motivated to achieve it. Tom’s advice displays a mantra that shows it’s about enjoying the process path as much as the outcome.

As Tom settles into his seat, more comfortable away from the camera, he smiles inwardly as we reflects on how technology is advancing with new apps that allow you to find your phone from anywhere in the world, yet education related advances seem to be stumped. ‘Students are suffering an emotional toll from a lagging system,” says Tom with empathy, hoping his brainchild can save students emotional toil and stress when choosing their subjects, allowing for more time to study and as a result, better results.

While we talk about Course Camel, it is obvious Tom has a great concern for the website and the way it can help those looking for a better future. While it has been a challenge over the past three years, compiling data from all Victorian education institutions, the Course Camel has been so well received by a wide range of people, illustrating he is on the right path.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Tom smiling, yet remaining as humble as he was in the earlier photo shoot, explaining how in today’s day and age time is scarce. Tom explains how in our modern world, the youth know the importance of getting something done quicker yet more affectively – hence why Course Camel has hit a gold mine with students statewide.

“Make sure to have a play around with the filters, you’ve got to try out the filters!” Tom’s enthusiasm is hard to hide. With a project that initially just wanted to improve the education industry, his pride and energy are reflective of the hard work and dedication to a project that at its core simply aims to ‘fix the problem students suffer from’.

While he claims it is the website that motivates students to be happier and find success, Tom himself can be seen as an inspiration for his drive to have Course Camel thrive. As humble as ever, as we conclude our interview, I ask him for any final words for students. Looking as much an entrepreneur as ever, he gets a twinkle in his eye.

“Right now, it’s a really good time for young people,” he smiles passionately and it is evident that Course Camel’s goals are on par with it’s creator – to help and fix the problem students suffer from. With the world moving at the rate it is today and the resources we have at our disposal, young people have a great opportunity to make a positive difference in the world and shape the future,” he says optimistically, showing that while he may not need to enroll in any courses available on Course Camel, Tom sure is on the right path.

Words: Liana Gangi

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