Select Page
Breaking the poverty cycle with education

Breaking the poverty cycle with education

Nearly 640,000 Australian children live in a ‘jobless’ family. These children are, on average, up to three years behind their peers in reading and maths by the time they’re 15 years of age. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

HSC completion rates in lower socio-economic backgrounds are still much lower (58%) than for students from higher socio-economic backgrounds (77%).

Lisa O’Brien is the CEO of The Smith Family which runs programs purely directed toward supporting education from early childhood through tertiary study and says that with 1 in 10 children growing up in a house where there is no adult working, it puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and the consequences are far-reaching.

“Today in Australia, 1 in 10 children are growing up in a house where there is no adult working. That puts enormous pressure on the financial resources in the home and there are far-reaching consequences of that.”

“We’re seeing young people growing up in households where there have been multiple generations of unemployment and financial disadvantage, and growing up in a home where there aren’t strong moral models around employment.”

“That’s not through any lack of desire on behalf of the parents it’s just that they haven’t been employed, so the things that are often taken for granted such as seeing someone get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work – kids don’t grow up with that kind of role model or example and so it tends to become a self-perpetuating cycle.”

“It’s partly because of the role-modelling, partly access to resources and also a sense of aspiration, that ‘I’m at school and I’m going to work hard so I can go on to university and get a job’; it’s just not the language in those households.”

“So we are seeing that these communities of long term disadvantage are growing around Australia. That puts a lot of pressure on young people who want to break out of that cycle.”

Over 20 years ago, The Smith Family changed its support model from one of welfare and charitable handouts, food parcels, etc, to one of supporting education.

“Our mission has always been to support kids and families with emergency help when in crisis, but it was recognised that we were just seeing the same families coming back through the door and we weren’t achieving sustainable change, that we weren’t making a difference in the long term to these kids and families. Research told us the key was education.”

“So we refocused all of our operations from passive assistance support to early intervention, focusing on supporting young people with their education. We start that support when they’re young and we will stay with the child all through the journey providing them support with the ultimate aim of them completing school and ideally going on to some further study, but definitely with the aim of transitioning into employment.”

“We recognised that there were others that could provide that sort of immediate emergency help and welfare support, but over time we realised by us giving additional financial support targeted to education that they were able to make a long-term change and they (the families) really valued that this money was quarantined to support their kids with education and wasn’t just getting subsumed in the needs of everyday existence.”

Anne Hampshire is the head of research for The Smith Family and she says even something most of us take for granted – internet access – can be a major problem for many Australian families.

“ABS data shows that lots of children are unable to access the internet at home. Research shows that 1 in 5 children aged between 5 and 14 had no internet access at home over a 12-month period and in some communities it was as high as 1 in 3 children.”

“Why that particularly matters, the major reason children use the internet at home is education-related activity. Yes, they might download movies and music, but the predominant reason they use it is for education, and assumptions are made that everybody has access to the internet.”

In our own region, the principal of Irrawang High School (Raymond Terrace) recently told 1233 that 25% of his students had no internet access at home and are earning about $200 per week less than the state average.

Anne says these figures reflect their own, “Around 40% of our families don’t have an email address.”

Newcastle mother, Lu*, says the support of The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program has taught her children more than the basics.

“When they were younger, they had a reading group where someone would phone them and have the kids read with them over the phone. We’ve learnt to budget and it makes a big difference knowing that the money is going to help our kids learn.”

“I’m not as smart as my children, I only went to Year 10 and then to TAFE, but I didn’t really have much of an education. My kids know that they need an education to get a job, to make a career, to get further in life, to have a good home and survive. They know it’s hard.”

“If we didn’t have this little bit of support, it would be another struggle. People say, ‘Oh, just put $10 aside’. Well, what $10!? I need $10 more! It’s a struggle.”

Lu now has a child at university, another doing his HSC and a little one yet to start school, but it was tough to hear Lu say that she’d actually told her kids not to be like her.

“I always say to them, ‘You don’t want to be uneducated like us and not be able to afford things. Look at us, we’re struggling every day, but with your education you’ll be able to do whatever you want and help others.”

Alex* is Lu’s son and this year completing his HSC. It speaks highly of Lu’s work with The Smith Family to support her children through education that Alex doesn’t consider himself to be ‘disadvantaged’.

“I think disadvantage is when someone doesn’t have access to the same resources as someone else. I don’t think I am too disadvantaged, I have a lot of positives in my life and I know there are plenty of others that don’t have the benefits that I do.”

How does Alex feel about being sponsored?

“It gives me education. There’s quite a range of social groups at school but most of my friends want to go to university. I want to study a social science degree, philosophy, theology, a few things because I like to learn and I’m fascinated these topics.”

Research by The Smith Family shows that completely Year 12 ‘increases a young person’s likelihood of continuing with further study, as well as entering the workforce.’

It also leads to higher annual earnings for individuals, greater community involvement and economic benefits for the country as a whole.

But not completing Year 12 can lead to:

Increased crime and poorer health outcomes among early school leavers
Nationally lower levels of productivity
Reduced quality of the labour force
Increased unemployment
Lower growth in income tax collections

Indeed, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Report, November 2012, said:

Education attainment is an important predictor of future employment, welfare and health prospects – and it improves [a person’s] ability to contribute socially and economically in the community.

Lisa O’Brien says that helping children obtain an education is good for all of us.

“There are some kids and families in Australia who are doing it really tough, but with the right support at the right time they can turn their lives around. That’s in everyone’s interest. If we have young people who are well-educated and focused on completing school and going on to employment, we’ll all prosper. It’s a great investment.”

(*names changed)

Denise Kelly – Wiradjuri Woman

Denise Kelly – Wiradjuri Woman

childDenise Kelly is a Wiradjuri woman who has been working with Liz Mullinar’s Heal For Life Foundation since 2005. Denise is now translating her experience in culturally appropriate education to helping support Aboriginal people who are survivors of child trauma and abuse.

“I work with children in schools and I know some of these children have been abused, so a friend asked me to look at the Heal for Life program for an Aboriginal perspective.”

“Even though we’re all Aboriginal, we’re all unique and all from different nations so for me to go all the way to Katherine, that’s a lot of nations that I travelled over to work with these people.”

What might be considered an accepted and standard approach to working with survivors of child abuse and trauma might not, however, be suitable for remote indigenous communities.

A very large part of Denise Kelly’s role is around understanding and developing strategies that take cultural sensititivies into consideration.

“The main issue for me is that I can’t work with Aboriginal men.”

“I can work with Aboriginal males up to a certain age but going to the Northern Territory when they’re initiated is when I need to back away.”

“I can, and will, work with all the ladies, any of the women and children, but not the men.”

“With setting up programs I do them specifically for Aboriginal women and girls.”

“Where the men are involved, it’s up to me to find males that can work with males and then train them to be carers and facilitators to run the programs.”

“So when I next go up to Katherine I can take a men’s group and they go off in their own area and the women in their own area.”

“We’re trying to do it in a way in which we can heal a whole family but we need the men trained.”

“One of the differences in working with people in remote areas and here in Newcastle is that in Katherine, for example, we would ‘heal’ them family by family, but in Newcastle you’re working with people from different families and different nations that will come together as one.”

One of the great difficulties in helping people who have been abused is in finding out in the first place.

Many people have been reluctant to tell others about what they’ve been through and Aboriginal people, in particular, have been subjected to numerous forms of abuse and trauma over many generations.

“The protocols are through the elders. I work in with elders so I need to get to know them first and for them to tell me individually which areas I can work in with the young ones.”

” Some of the kids don’t talk to their elders, they will talk to somebody else but they need to be able to trust me.”

“It makes it easier for me being Aboriginal and something we’re very good at is what you would call ‘gut feeling’ but Aboriginal people instinctively know if they can work with you or not.”

“Every Aboriginal person I know has been through some sort of trauma or abuse and has had to hide it.”

“It’s time it was out there and shown to people. Other people might not even realise they’re hurting Aboriginal people so it’s time we had a voice.”

With the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse getting underway, will it be difficult to get Aboriginal people to tell their stories to the commissions?

“We’ll be able to help them but for them to talk to people in authority straight up – I don’t think they’ll be able to because if there’s just one person there that they know isn’t going to believe them they’ll think ‘well, what’s the point in telling any of them’.”

“There’s going to be many stories (untold). They need to have the right people sitting out at the commission so that these people can put their walls down and be able to talk.”

“They need to have sensitive people sitting there at the commission, not the hierarchy that usually do sit out the front.”

“I feel the abuse is still there, there are still kids being abused.”

Given the cultural sensitivities that Denise Kelly has to work with, what’s it like for a Wellington, NSW, woman to head to Katherine?

“It is very hard to go out of country. Very hard. Because I know there’s a difference within the Aboriginal nations and how they do things, the things they eat.”

” People just assume that in Katherine, for example, they eat kangaroo. I don’t eat kangaroo.”

” They might just seem little things but they’re big things to me.”

“I look up to the people in Darwin because they were allowed to keep their language, they were allowed to keep their culture, but I’m still learning my culture and learning my language, I’m teaching my language to the kids out my way.”

“I feel proud of the people in Katherine but at the same time I feel for them because their hurts are bigger.”

Liz Mullinar – survivor of child abuse

Liz Mullinar – survivor of child abuse

Liz Mullinar

Liz Mullinar at Mayumarri in the Hunter Valley

Re-post: First published 23 May 2010. It means a great deal to me that I still receive correspondence from people about this story. With the NSW Special Commission and Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse I thought it might be timely to share again.

I don’t really believe in angels, but if I did, Liz Mullinar would surely be one.  Warm, funny, smiley … smart, tough, feisty.  A woman of two careers.  The first long and very successful career as Australia’s leading casting agent for film and television – from Picnic At Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Dead Calm, to Shine and Little Fish – it is an exhaustive list of fine Australian cinema and television, and many spectacular careers, that had their start in the hands of Liz Mullinar  (I’m looking at you, Cate, and you, Geoffrey.)

Liz Mullinar’s second career was unexpected, and perhaps unsought.  After becoming ill in the early 90’s, for no known reason, Liz began a journey of recognition.  Understanding that having been sexually abused as a child was something that she would have to accept in order to become well again.  But how do you accept something as truly terrible as child sexual abuse and trauma?  How do you find the courage to accept it and admit it, when your life has revolved around feeling … inconsequential.

I left a very rainy day on the coast to drive into the hidden parts of the Hunter Valley, “We are sign-posted from Quorrobolong!” Indeed.  If you are driving from the Cessnock side, not from my side of the Watagan mountains.  “Just call if you need directions … here are my home and mobile phone numbers …”  Great.  No signal.  Sigh.  Nearly an hour late, I finally drove up the correct dirt road, around bends, up and over the hill … and down to one of the most beautiful, peaceful locations I’ve seen.  Mayumarri (now the Heal For Life Foundation).  Peace.

“If you look around you, you’ll notice you can’t see any other homes at all.  This is important.  If you need to scream as part of your healing, you don’t want the neighbours calling the police!”

Liz was one of the co-founders of ASCA – Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse.  She walked away from her very successful business after realising how little was being done to help people, just like herself, whose lives were damaged by childhood trauma.

Mayumarri is beautiful.  It is picturesque and tranquil.  Would have made a good movie set.  I had read a PhD thesis which includes an interview with Liz in which the author describes feeling like an ‘intruder’, and it gives the impression that here is a woman who will only talk to you, tell her story, against her will.  Grudgingly.  Because she has to for a ‘greater good’.  That she is extremely guarded. Given her childhood abuse it would be easy to assume this is true, and understandably so.  And perhaps, once upon a time, she was.  But not now.  I don’t know that Liz Mullinar.

I arrive, late, at Mayumarri with my family in tow.  The kids’ soccer had been cancelled, and I thought they might enjoy romping around a Hunter Valley property, so I quickly called to seek permission for them to accompany me.  “Of course!”, said Debbie – one of the Mayumarri volunteers, “We’re expecting you for lunch!”  As I parked the car and started to remove recording equipment, cameras, kids, bags of European biscuits I had brought for Liz … a small, elegant, silver-blonde woman came striding towards me, all beaming smile and warm manner to wrap us all up in a warm welcoming hug, “I’m Liz!  Come on, lunch is ready!”

Before we knew it, we were in the enormous earthy space of the main Mayumarri building – a log fire roaring on one side, a bustle of activity in the vast kitchen, and a massive timber table set for lunch for about 30 very hungry people who were all rather pleased to see that I’d finally arrived.  They could eat!  After a communal simple ‘grace’ of thanks, each member of Mayumarri introduced themselves to me.  Carers.  Facilitators.  Guests.

I explained why I was there, and that no-one had to talk to me, to be interviewed, unless they were entirely happy about it.  Comfortable would be the wrong word, how could you ever be comfortable telling a stranger that you’d been sexually or emotionally abused as a child.  Happy is probably the wrong word, too.  I offered that we would stop our interviews at anytime.  That I would delete or edit anything they may have said to me that they perhaps wished they hadn’t. That their privacy and identities would be protected.  Yet everyone in that warm room wanted to talk.  Nearly everyone was happy to be photographed for my stories.

I conducted my interviews in the Mayumarri chapel.  An octagonal building made of rammed earth, timber and glass.  A warm room full of comfortable chairs, rugs … and tissues.  More boxes of tissues than I’ve ever seen.  If these walls could talk, they’d cry.  Yet it is not a sad place.  It’s a safe and loving space.

The chapel at Mayumarri

The youngest woman I interviewed was just 17.  The oldest was 67.  And there was Harry, too.  Harry is a big bear of a man.  Now a carer and facilitator, Harry first came to Mayumarri to heal.  Right there is another myth busted.  Mayumarri is no Dog’s Head Harbour, and Liz Mullinar is no Jenny Field.

Mayumarri is for everyone who needs it – man, woman, young, old, confused, broken, bereft. There are house rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no mobile phones (yes, really), no television, no magazines, no anger, no abuse, no power-plays.  Guests arrive at Mayumarri on a Sunday afternoon, and stay until the following Friday.  Behaviour agreements are drawn up so that everybody knows what everybody else needs to feel safe.  You don’t like people standing behind you?  No problem.

The one recurring theme in all of my interviews – aside from the obvious link of childhood sexual abuse and trauma – is one of trying to survive when feeling powerless.  Useless.  Pointless.  Unloved. “How can I care about myself when no-one else does?”  Suicide is mentioned.  A lot.  By young and old.  The dark-eyed Cassie tells me about how she would cut herself in order to feel something. Anything.  Kira tells me about her addiction to crack cocaine.  Kira?  She’s so beautiful, and smart … how could someone like Kira fall so far?  Kristina.  Her isolation from her children and grandchildren.  Harry.  Useless Harry who would never amount to much. Harry? Harry saves lives!  Tears are shed.  A lot.  I wondered why I couldn’t see the negatives these people had seen in themselves. The failings they had convinced themselves everyone else saw.  As I spoke with each one of them, all I could see were their strengths.  And there were many.  Do I live with rose-coloured glasses on?  No.  We all have our stories.  Some of us aren’t brave enough to tell them.

But here at Mayumarri, somehow, over the course of a week, or many weeks and return visits, the damage is undone.  The healing begins.  People who’ve lived their lives in pain and shame come to know their true selves, and their true worth.  And perhaps most importantly, to love and accept love.  Forgetting is impossible, that will never happen.  But acknowledgement and acceptance gives back a little power to those whose power had been taken from them.  By force.  I asked one of the two Chloes, “Is the hardest part letting people love YOU?”  I could see her fight the lifelong desire to prickle as she looked at me for a moment, and quietly said, “Yes.”  I see you, Chloe.

I had interviewed Liz Mullinar once before.  As we were having lunch she loudly proclaimed, “This is Carol.  A few months ago she did the best interview with me I’ve ever done. Ever!”  Thank you, Liz.  It is a great privilege to be able to come to your safe place, to share a meal with you and the Mayumarri people, and to have you trust me to share your stories.  I didn’t feel like an intruder at Mayumarri.  I asked my husband afterwards what he’d been expecting, and he said that he had thought he would feel like we shouldn’t be there.  Strangers.  Intruders. But I knew as soon as I saw Liz striding up that hill that we were, in fact, very welcome.


I didn’t see my husband or kids for the next four hours.  They were wrapped up in warm hugs and sweet biscuits and cups of tea, venturing to the Mayumarri lake where canoes are kept by the barn.  They got rained on.  Which meant more warm drinks and sweet biscuits and hugs and throwing logs on the open fire.

I know we were welcome.  I think my boys were their own little force for good, too.  Mr 8 said to me, “Mummy, the people there are so kind, it’s like they’d never be angry!”  I don’t think my boys understand the tiny little bit of healing balm their bright, open faces, their big laughs and warm hugs offered in return.

They don’t claim to be mental health professionals at Mayumarri.  They don’t pretend to be anything they’re not.  I found them to be so much more.  They offer everything that our wonderful Australian health services (and we are very lucky in this country) don’t offer.  Time.  Warmth.  Compassion.  Love.  Healing.  There is no prescription for what is offered at Mayumarri.  But maybe there should be.




Stephane Pois hosts the kids’ tour of the farmers market

Today I saw something wonderful. And unexpected.

My kids know about real food. Fresh food. They don’t think cakes come from packet mix because mum says if you’re going to have chocolate cake, have a real one. They know how to make dumplings. They’ve had chooks in their backyard (and will do again when I build a proper pen … long story).

They know how to make yoghurt, and therefore they know how to make labna. And they eat it. They pick herbs from the garden for including in meals or mint for pineapple slushies.

They even know how to make beef jerky and smoked salmon.

I’m very much a slacker-mum, and I could make sure they watched less television and ran around the yard a bit more, but they do know about real, fresh food. They see mum cook interesting, tasty things, and then freeze them for later. I make their school lunches nearly every day and they’re always very simple sangers & a bit of fruit. Maybe a bikkie or two. Sometimes they get a canteen lunch order or a little money to spend, but not often. They don’t mind, it’s just how it is.

Because we cook. Yes, I work full-time and they do after-school stuff like soccer and violin and we probably don’t have all that much of a social life and there’s nowhere near enough hours in the day but we love to make interesting, tasty things to eat. Real food is a priority. In case you’re wondering, we eat McDonalds and pizza. Too often.

Occasionally we visit the local farmers’ market. We have the lovely Turkish family cook spinach, fetta and mushroom gozleme for us for breakfast. And because I must reverse engineer anything tasty we now make it at home in a sandwich press.

We buy oranges from the man who grows them, lemons and lemon cordial from the woman who grows the lemons and makes the cordial, ‘Russian’ sausages from Mr Kasmaroski who was taught how to make them by his great-grandfather. We buy felafel, hommus, baba ganoush and the most amazingly garlicky garlic dip from the man who makes them and we get some of his delicious bread smothered in zaatar to eat our dips and goodies with

Trying Tim’s beef sausages with chilli

Today at the farmers’ market we met Stephane Pois.

I knew a little about Stephane as he had been on our breakfast program at the ABC station I work at to make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and he once gave me a beautiful spicy sausage to try, but I don’t know him very well. After today, however, he is my new best friend.

I didn’t know that Stephane was the very best kind of Pied Piper.

Stephane is a very French Frenchman who kisses you on both cheeks and does food and wine tours and food tastings, gourmet hampers and so on in the Hunter Valley. At the farmers’ market, however, he shares his love of fresh produce and beautiful, simple food by doing quick cooking demonstrations. Today he made, among other things, vin chaud – mulled wine, and this mother could have happily sat there all day tasting it in tiny little cups. Or mugs. OK buckets.

In between doing the demonstrations, Stephane does a children’s tour of the market. With portable microphone in hand and kids dressed in aprons and chef’s hats, they charge off at a rapid trot to visit half a dozen stall holders where Stephane tells them about the food, the people who make or grow it, and then they have a little taste and maybe collect goodies for their loot bags.

Today they learned about fresh oranges and which ones are sweeter, they tasted beautiful Angus beef and chilli (yes, chilli) sausages with Tim (in the photo), they tasted labna made by Simon (and declared it better than their mother’s – funny because Simon taught me how to make it), they tried pate and delicious pork terrine made by Stephane himself, salted caramel truffles and scored a lovely bag of fresh mushrooms from the mushroom grower.

And then they all returned to Stephane’s cooking stall to cook vichy carrots.

Ready to cook vichy carrots for the audience

End result? Incredibly happy and motivated children who had just had a rip-roaring gallop through the farmers market, met some wonderful growers and producers who obviously share a love of food and see the importance of Stephane’s quest to inspire children. And they all do this for free. Maybe the parents buy an item here or there, maybe they don’t, but no-one worries about that. Stephane’s quest is healthy kids who understand fresh produce and love good food.

I reckon this very loud and exuberant Frenchman knows just how to achieve it.