Queenwood Girls for Girls – Making a Difference

18 November 2016

This article was first published in the Queenwood weekly newsletter on 18 November 2016

Around 18 months ago, Queenwood established a relationship with Macleay Vocational College in Kempsey. There is much to say about this remarkable school. It is an independent school designed for teenagers who have fallen out of education altogether and offering VET and HSC pathways to students in Years 9-12. The College is not exclusively for Indigenous students, but as it serves the needs of the most marginalised and disadvantaged students its intake is around 90% Indigenous. When I first visited MVC last year, it was an eye-opener. The College itself is a beautiful place, and mostly feels very familiar. It’s a school. But as I spent time with the students and learnt more about their stories I was, I confess, shocked to understand the extremity of the students’ personal circumstances, and to realise that this was occurring not in a remote outback settlement but in a large coastal community a few hours away with strong regional infrastructure. It was a salutary reminder of the reality behind the headlines about disadvantage and dysfunction in Indigenous communities – all the more so because it is so close to home.

For the girls at our two schools the difference in life experience is stark. The students at MVC are pursuing their studies against challenges such as poverty, transience and homelessness; significant health issues including complex mental health and addictive behaviours; inconsistent or absent parenting and family violence; incidents with police and criminal justice; barriers to accessing basic services and so on. MVC is a safe and stable haven for these young people, and their pride in and attachment to their school is palpable. You can see it immediately as you walk through the gate – their students keep the grounds and environs immaculate.

The College offers the widest possible range of assistance to its students. In addition to providing pathways to vocational education and university, it assists students in accessing housing and social services, health services, support programs for dealing with addiction and family violence, dealings with criminal justice, and healthy living programs. Sometimes it’s as simple as providing food for kids who are not fed at home; sometimes it’s providing micro-credit so teenagers learn to manage money and live independently. By supporting every area of a student’s life they maximise the chance of success, and the effectiveness of this model is clear. MVC has achieved remarkable success over recent years: enrolments have increased by 50% and attendance has dramatically improved; in the last four years 31 students have finished the HSC as the first in their family to do so; three of these have been teenage mothers, all of whom either continue to be involved at College providing positive role modelling or are pursuing further study or traineeships.

There is one aspect of MVC which is of particular interest to us, and that is their work with teenage mothers and their babies within their Ginda Barri program. These young mothers are usually on their own, without family assistance, and can be as young as 13 years old. Over time MVC has developed a pathway for these young mothers to continue their progress towards VET and HSC qualifications and learn parenting skills to give their babies the start in life they haven’t had themselves. Most school programs addressing teenage pregnancy are aimed at girls who fall pregnant while they are at school, and aim to keep them there. At MVC, however, the majority of young mothers were not at school before falling pregnant, so an unplanned pregnancy is not the reason they fall out of education. Instead, it is a reason to come back into it, and they seek entry to MVC because they see it as a safe place for them and their baby, a place where they will get the education and skills they need to manage their lives. Ginda Barri is an unusual and inspiring model which not only transforms the lives of the mothers but also secures the future of the next generation. Many of the MVC students are the second or third generation who have grown up without consistent parenting or schooling, but Ginda Barri is breaking the cycle as it strengthens the next generation of mothers and cares for their babies.

In developing the relationship with MVC, our first priority is to create genuine opportunities for our students to connect. This has to be carefully managed but small groups of our students have already visited in both directions, and on both sides the girls have described it as ‘life-changing’. We are looking to grow this relationship over time, and it promises to be hugely enriching for Queenwood girls who will have the opportunity to connect with and learn from girls with a totally different start in life. We hope to enrich the MVC girls’ understanding in turn. For now, however, we have an immediate objective in mind.

The Ginda Barri program has been so successful that it now needs its own space. The babies and toddlers need their own playground away from the teenage students. They need proper areas for the babies to play and sleep, adjacent classrooms for their mothers to learn, and space for health professionals to visit and care for mother and baby. When I first discussed this need with the Principal of MVC, I felt it was an ideal project for Queenwood to support in the longer term. In the meantime, the number of teenage mothers seeking help from Ginda Barri has increased further and the need has become even more urgent.  A few months ago, Newington College generously donated some second-hand demountable classrooms to MVC which brought the goal of a dedicated Early Childhood Centre at College much closer. The buildings are now in place, but they need to be fitted out: painting, carpeting, stairs, ramps, fire extinguishers, electrical, plumbing, sewage, fencing and railings, children’s furniture and so on. We now have the inspiring possibility of making the Early Childhood Centre a reality for Term 1 2017 and to make this happen we are launching the Queenwood Girls for Girls campaign.

The Girls for Girls campaign recognises that the Queenwood community is in a position to support young and vulnerable mothers to access education and provide the parenting which will secure the future of the next generation of Indigenous children. Through this campaign we aim to raise  $100 000 to fit out the classrooms for the Ginda Barri program. More details and FAQ are available here.

Some Queenwood families who have learnt about MVC in the last few weeks have already committed significant financial support to the project, and I am delighted to say that their generosity has secured over $66 000 for the campaign. The challenge I am now putting to the broader Queenwood community is to raise the remaining $34 000 by Christmas. It is an ambitious goal, but a donation of just $40 for each girl at Queenwood would more than cover it. We are hugely encouraged by the interest from our girls who heard about the campaign in Assembly on Wednesday, and by the early and generous support we have already received.

So what’s next?

Girls for Girls Hour

We want to help, but it is important that we do so from a position of understanding and engagement with the underlying issues. The most powerful thing we can do for our girls is help them do this. We are therefore asking every Queenwood family to set aside one hour to engage with these issues. At 8:30pm on Wednesday, 30 November we ask you to sit down with your daughters (if they are old enough) to watch the second episode of the SBS documentary First Contact  presented by Ray Martin. This episode will deal with the Stolen Generation, from which many of the students at MVC are descended. Through this Girls for Girls hour, we ask for your help in ensuring that our girls engage with the world and grapple to form their own perspective on important moral and social issues. We want them to watch the program thoughtfully and critically, and to have the opportunity to discuss and debate it with you afterwards. You might then wish to view a 5-minute SBS clip about MVC and the early incarnation of Ginda Barri from a few years ago, which will put their work into context. (We will send a link closer to the time.)

There are some upcoming fundraising events for the girls, and they will be informed of these separately. We will not, however, reach our goal through these activities alone. We will be writing to you after the Girls for Girls Hour to seek your help, and ask you to consider supporting this important campaign. Every contribution will count, but whether or not you choose to support Girls for Girls financially the time you spend helping your daughters understand the issues and establish their own moral compass will be a significant contribution. More information about MVC and the Girls for Girls campaign, Ms Paola Tamberlin, Indigenous Projects Coordinator and I are happy to field further enquiries.

At this time of year there are many demands on our time and attention, and you would be forgiven for feeling that this is an untimely request. I have, however, been reminding myself that my own children will be starting the new school year in January with every support in place, and every opportunity of making something of their lives. The young mothers at MVC are children themselves and they and their babies have been dealt very different cards. I hope that we at Queenwood, through the Girls for Girls campaign, will be able to make the new school year a time of great hope and encouragement for all of them.

Ms Elizabeth Stone