If the Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants to appeal to more women voters, the SISTER2sister mentoring program is just the type of initiative the Federal Government should be funding in the lead up to the next Federal Election on September 14.
The SISTER2sister mentoring program has changed the lives of hundreds of girls in Western Sydney but needs more funding to keep it going and to roll it out Australia wide.
After government funding for the program ran out in 2008, the organisation that runs the program, the Life Changing Experiences Foundation, has been surviving on a shoe-string budget funded by private grants and public donations.
Founder of the Life Changing Experiences Foundation, Jessica Brown, has devoted the last 8 years of life and made considerable personal sacrifices, to improve the lives of girls at risk, with the help of women mentors from business and the corporate sector.
Ten years ago Jessica was working as a high school teacher in Western Sydney when she realised some students weren’t reaching their potential because of what was going on at home. Some of Jessica’s brightest students were suffering from abuse or neglect and others were living in homes where there is domestic violence or someone with an addiction.
Jessica told Australian Women Online: “These kids were mucking up at school and getting into fights in the playground, or just not being social in the playground and most of them were seeing the school counsellor.”
“What I wanted to do is to provide a program that addresses the basic needs of these students first, before you can expect them to excel in the classroom. Making sure they had clean clothes. Making sure they’re being fed. Making sure they were living in a safe environment.”
Believing that not enough was being done to address these basic needs, Jessica left teaching to start the SISTER2sister mentoring program for girls 12 – 18.
“What I was most passionate about was working with youth, particularly young girls and I have a wonderful network of women who are great role models for the girls,” said Jessica. “The other thing I’m quite passionate about is girls being equipped for motherhood before taking on that challenge.”
SISTER2sister is an intensive 12 month risk management program for disadvantaged girls, many of whom reside in Western Sydney, which will be the focus of national media coverage this week as Julia Gillard tours the area in an attempt to woo voters in the western suburbs.
“It’s not a matter of giving them a band-aid and saying ‘get better’,” said Jessica Brown. “It’s really about addressing the core issues of disadvantaged youth, including the lack of a positive role model. We also provide lots of educational workshops for the girls. So it’s really about showing them a world outside the one they’re currently living in.”
Girls can be nominated for the SISTER2sister program by anyone in the community but most are nominated by people who work with disadvantaged youth.
“It can be either a school counsellor or it may well be a DOCS case worker. Last year we had a lot of girls who were nominated by the Domestic Violence Unit of the NSW Police. But anyone can nominate.”
SISTER2sister mentors or ‘Big Sisters’ are drawn from business and the corporate sector. However, any woman aged 25 and over can apply to become a mentor.
“Our mentors tend to be very high achieving women who have demanding jobs and have worked really hard to get where they are. My vision is to roll it out nationally and we have waiting lists of volunteers who are located all over Australia. So it’s really just a matter or time and funding.”
With no government funding, the program needs the financial support of people throughout Australia.
“We have had government funding in the past but that ran out in 2008. So we rely on the generosity of the public and I also write a lot of grant applications to philanthropists and foundations connected to corporations in Australia.”
The Life Changing Experiences Foundation currently has just two staff, which places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of it’s founder and CEO.
“I’m CEO. I’m professional beggar. I’m program manager. I’m welfare officer and I’m marketer,” said Jessica Brown. “I do everything but I’ve got a wonderful assistant.”
But working insanely long hours has taken a tremendous toll on both her health and her love live.
In 2010 Jessica was faced with a family tragedy of her own when her brother was brutally stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The stress of her brother’s murder and supporting her two grieving parents whilst continuing to do a very demanding and important job, had a significant impact on Jessica’s physical and mental health. Three years ago Jessica was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which dramatically affected her ability to function normally.
“My health deteriorated and my body basically shut down and said well if you’re not going to listen to me I’m going to make you. I got to the point where I was sleeping 20 hours a day.”
Jessica says both she and the foundation were able to survive during this difficult period thanks to the support of the foundation’s board of directors.
“My Board allowed me to come into the office when I could and the chairwoman [of the Board] was able to come into the office a couple of days a week, which really helped. Eventually I did recover but I wouldn’t say that I’m back to perfect health because I’m still burning the candle at both ends.”
Lack of funding to expand the program and to hire more staff has also made it difficult for Jessica to meet someone and start a family of her own.
“I would love to have a child but I’m 42 and I’m very busy with my job. Plus there’s a shortage of men in Sydney I’m sure. But it’s definitely on my bucket list to find someone.”
One consolation for this amazing woman is that all her efforts to improve the lives of disadvantaged girls in our community haven’t gone unnoticed.
Jessica was a 2011 NSW finalist for the prestigious Australian of the Year Awards and was the NSW face for the Commonwealth Bank’s 2011 Launching Local Heroes program. She has also just been announced as a finalist in the NSW Woman of the Year People’s Choice award.
You can help by giving what you can to the Life Changing Experiences Foundation so more girls can look forward to a better future.
For more information about the foundation and the SISTER2sister mentoring program, or to make a donation to this very worthy cause please visit the website: www.lifechangingexperiences.org