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Three South Australian organisations that make me proud

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 4 Mar 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (20:34):  One of the best things about my job is the people I get to meet and the places I get to visit. Today I have the very pleasant task of talking about three South Australian organisations I have had the privilege of visiting in the past three months. As well as doing fascinating work, they left me feeling optimistic about the decency and strength of civil society in Australia. I believe we are all enriched by that.


Let me tell you, first of all, about Thebarton Senior College. It is tucked away in Adelaide's western suburbs where it is a beacon of hope for many people. Students aged between 16 and 60 come to this special place from far and wide-literally-hailing from 30 different countries at the last count as well as locally. Thebarton is a case study in inclusiveness, peace and harmony. Whether students want to obtain the South Australian Certificate of Education, complete a vocational or other tertiary pathway or attend school for the first time ever and learn English, Thebarton has a commitment to lifelong learning in an environment of cooperation, peace and harmony.

When you visit Thebarton Senior College-and I had the privilege of doing that recently-you quickly see that community and respect for others is at the absolute centre of what the place is about. In the library I saw a young woman in a hijab working beside a middle-aged man from China. In the yard I saw clusters of students in traditional dress and from a variety of cultural backgrounds laughing and talking together.

Peace is also an ever-present ethic in the school, with paper crane mobiles hung in the corridors and signs featuring doves and other peaceful imagery on classroom doors. It is a very important concept for students who have often experienced conflict, violence and trauma before making their way to the haven that they see that Australia is.

In 2007, Thebarton Senior College became the first secondary school in Australia to become a United Nations Global Peace School. So learning about human rights, peace building and restorative practices is embedded throughout the curriculum.

I recently visited Thebarton Senior College because they are experiencing significant funding uncertainty after the federal funding for their New Arrivals Program for adults was cut last year by the previous government. To their credit, the South Australian state government stepped in to cover this funding shortfall. But, unfortunately, there has been no commitment to ongoing funding for the program in 2014. I met with the principal, Kim Hebenstreit, and assistant principals from Thebarton to discuss this unique program and to better understand what it has meant for the lives of many refugees and new arrivals to our country, most of whom are not allowed to work. It is a comprehensive, intensive English language immersion program for new arrivals to Australia which aims to prepare students for living and working in the community and then, in some cases, for pursuing further study. There is a focus on cultural interaction and understanding as well as academic achievement. It is unique in Australia. The principal, Kim, told me that the course became so popular that people from interstate were coming directly from the airport to enrol with their boarding passes in their hands.

Sadly, without a commitment for either state or federal funding in 2014, the 318 students who were enrolled in the program last year have been unable to continue their studies. These former students are living in the community, but now do not have anything to do, given that they are unable to work at this stage. Some of those who were enrolled were poised to enter year 12 in 2014. Many are skilled workers, such as the diesel mechanic from Europe and the petrochemical engineer from Iran, who desperately want the chance to contribute in Australia. Attending Thebarton, they were developing their English language skills in preparation for the time when they will be permitted to work. Afghani women also attend Thebarton. Some are mothers who have never learnt to read or write-they have never had the opportunity to go to school in their own homeland. They are now learning literacy and numeracy skills for the first time, their lives enriched by the chance to learn in a safe and caring environment. They will also be able to pass on their education-and the advantages of that-to their children, thus spreading the benefit. What a waste of potential if any one of these students were to become socially isolated due to a lack of English language skills or were not to be able to pursue their hunger for learning and development.

The shining light for the dedicated teachers and staff of Thebarton is the way the Adelaide community has come together to support this wonderful and unique New Arrivals Program until such time as funding can be restored. After a call-out, the school has at least 50 qualified and generous ESL-English as a second language-professionals who are willing to volunteer their time. The result is that some students will be able to access six hours of ESL teaching per week outside of school hours, with the premises being available once the ordinary subjects and schooling has finished. Obviously, it is not the same as the former comprehensive program, which aimed to prepare students for living and working in the Australian community and for further study. But it does offer a ray of hope for those students who were bereft that they could not continue to attend the village that is Thebarton Senior College. To me, it is a heart-warming example of just how kind many Australians are and what a welcoming generous country we can be at heart.

To run the program through to completion for the students enrolled as of December 2013 will require $3 million. The South Australian government has yet to clarify if any further funding will be forthcoming. The principal of the college, Kim Hebenstreit, has said that it is the most inclusive and harmonious school environment that he has ever encountered in almost 40 years of teaching. The students of Thebarton are highly motivated individuals who have much to offer our community. The vast bulk of these students will live and work in South Australia. Even from a social cohesion perspective, it is far better if new arrivals are proficient in English and can participate fully within our broader community. There is currently a community run petition, directed to both the South Australian government and the opposition in the lead-up to the South Australian election in two weeks, calling for reinstatement of the funding that is needed to ensure the completion of the education of the 318 people who were enrolled in December.

I will now turn to another two South Australian organisations that are doing wonderful things to expand opportunities for South Australian young people who have been dealt a pretty tough hand in life. The first of these is Time for Kids. It is a non-profit organisation fostering lifelong links between children or youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and nurturing second families. They take children who are as young as 18 months and match them with suitable families and mentors. These families often provide short stay respite care to give these children a break and a chance to have new experiences, new learning and opportunities that normally would not come their way. In the words of the CEO of Time for Kids, Jennifer Duncan, 'Time for Kids pairs people who are equipped to navigate the system with those who are often victims of the system.'

In 2009, Time for Kids won a national crime and violence prevention award from the federal government and the Australian Institute of Criminology in recognition of the impact of their program in eliminating youth offending. As Flinders University Professor, Mark Halsey, said in evaluating the program, 'Not every child who has a tough time at home does badly at school, becomes violent, abuses drugs and alcohol and become socially withdrawn or commits crime. Similarly, not every child who ends up in permanent government foster care has a troubled life, but there is ample evidence to demonstrate that these are common factors associated with young people who are repeatedly incarcerated.' Since 1960, Time for Kids has assisted more than 4,800 South Australian children, either through respite care or through mentoring arrangements. But it is unique, because the volunteers are not paid or reimbursed for any of the work they do-it is totally altruistic and totally voluntary. For many kids who are born into backgrounds of disadvantage, many of the adults they meet-social workers or others-are professionally nice. Helping these kids is part of their work, part of their job. So it creates an amazing confidence boost to these young people when they learn that someone wants to spend time with them for free-for fun.

Kids know the people that spend time with them through Time for Kids are there because they want to be. That does wonderful things for the self-esteem of these children, and their sense of being valued.

Here is Matthew's story. Matthew's largely absent father battled with a severe mental illness while his mother, alone, did the best she could to support Matthew and his six brothers and sisters. There is a beautiful book that has been compiled by Time for Kids, and Matthew's story is in that. I take his story from that book. Matthew says:

Most people take it for granted that we all make choices. The only difference, they say, is that some people make good choices and others don't. But I believe there are people who just do things. They don't make choices at all because they don't think they have any choice. That's probably how I'd have been if I hadn't met my 'other family'.

He goes on:

Without Sarah, Greg and Ben, I know that as a child, and maybe even as an adult, I would never have camped under the stars, cooked marshmallows over the fire, caught my first fish, ridden on the cockle train or trekked around Granite Island.

He says:

It was the day-to-day activities that influenced my life the most. It was far more than just a break for me.

I saw the world in a different light just from spending time with them. They didn't go out of their way to do anything special. The were just there, being themselves, doing what they always did.

With the support of his birth family and his support family, Matthew finished high school and went off to university-the only one of his siblings to do so. He completed a social work degree and is now working in India with children in poverty.

Over decades, Time for Kids has helped thousands of children like Matthew. To their knowledge, not one of those children has come before the courts while they were in the Time for Kids program. Time for Kids can be immensely proud of the work they have done for more than five decades in fostering caring, mentoring relationships to expand the horizons of those youth who might be at risk.

The second organisation I am going to talk about is connected with Youth Connections. It is Employment Options, based in Mount Barker and Victor Harbor. This organisation re-engages disadvantaged and disconnected young people with school, training or work. Each year it helps 1,700 South Australian young people to get back into education or employment.

Many of the young people seen by the manager, John Coates, and his team, are kids who have been out of school and work for several months. In some cases, these young people have ongoing challenges to their mental health or have been victims of bullying at school. Others simply lack the basic life skills they will need to get a job. By the time some of these children are referred to Youth Connections, they have been disengaged from social settings for some time and can be anxious and withdrawn.

Too often, our tendency with disengaged young people is to take punitive measures, rather than practical ones. But the truth is that a big stick will not get children who have these sorts of challenges back to school. The beauty of the Youth Connections program is that it is tailored to need, so youth can stay a short time or as long as it takes. There is a flexibility with it.

The team teach everything, from the basic skills of shopping or opening a bank account to managing physical and mental health as well as more targeted workplace skills. The dedicated team do a wonderful job of providing a safe space-and that is a really important concept here-where these young people feel welcome and safe to interact and develop with the staff and with each other. With pizza lunches and space for video games, the centre often operates like a family lounge room. But it is not just fun and games; this social interaction is a serious business for isolated teenagers. And it works!-that is the good news. A recent study showed that one year after exiting Youth Connections, 94 per cent of these youth are still in education or employment, and two years later 81 per cent were still learning or earning.

The Youth Connections team are so well loved by their clients, and so well-respected by the local young people that many referrals come from the teams themselves or close friends. I want to share one moving story with you--almost too good to be true-that I heard about when I visited Youth Connections. This is the story of a young girl who was referred by Centrelink. She had very significant mental health issues. She had been involved with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for a long time, and she was ultimately diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She was, at times, extraordinarily depressed and she had engaged in self-harming. She had been in and out of hospital. She had been at several schools and she was bullied at all of them. In fact, she went to a religious school and they performed an exorcism on her.

She was kicked out of the last school, before she got to Youth Connections, because she took a knife to school. Because of her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder many services were just not available to her. They would not deal with her. I learnt from the manager, John Coates, and the team at Youth Connections, that after 18 months of patient work this young woman was feeling much safer. She was doing extraordinarily well, given that history. She had become involved with a crime prevention program with the police. The police were described by John as being absolutely fantastic. There had been some occasions when she had slipped backwards and there had been some tricky behaviour, so they checked in very regularly with her.

As a result of her good experiences with the police she is now engaged in a justice studies course-she had gone on and done some literacy and numeracy at TAFE-and she is engaging other services. She is having work experience and she is settling down. She has recently moved out of home.

Another client, 19-year-old man, had a serious case of social withdrawal. When he first came to Youth Connections he would not engage with anyone. He would not speak. He would not engage. When his mother was not there-when she left-he was extremely shy and would sit quietly in a corner and not say anything for periods of time. The organisation assisted him with a 10-week life-skills course. He began to interact with the other young people at the service and he now initiates conversation. They have described him as feelings so safe in the service that he acts as if he actually owns the place.

Unfortunately, the Commonwealth component of Youth Connections funding runs out at the end of this year and there is no guarantee that it will be extended.

I have written to the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, urging him to renew the funding so that the wonderful work of Youth Connections can continue-because, actually, it is a huge investment. The alternative is unthinkable for some of these young people. They will be condemned to a life of social isolation. They will have extreme difficulty ever being able to engage in the meaningful work that is so important for all of us and our self-esteem and sense of worth. It is crucial we do not leave struggling or challenging youth behind but continue to connect them with inspiring services with a strong track record, evaluated like the Youth Connections group.

In conclusion, I am lucky. I think I have a very fortunate job being able to meet people like this, poke my nose into their business and often be welcomed to do so, where they will share their endeavours, their success stories and their challenges with me. It makes me very proud to be a South Australian knowing there are so many dedicated and passionate people working in my state for good in so many ways. I am privileged to have met these organisations and I will do all I can to support them to continue to thrive into the future.


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