Community Philanthropy Award 2020

“I thought I had to be older to do this.’’

On the official scale of social disadvantage in Australia, the Geelong suburbs of Norlane and Corio fare badly. Life for families, and especially kids, in those suburbs is not easy. Along with many other challenges, there is one recurring issue – how do local schools keep the kids engaged? Is there a way that they can plot a path to a secure future?

That’s where Geelong Kids as Catalysts comes in. This is a place-based program designed for primary school children that gives the kids the opportunity to drive community change themselves: they pick the focus for their community engagement projects, often reflecting social issues they have directly experienced. The key to the approach is a creative and collaborative framework pioneered by Creative Directors Dr Andrea Lemon, a performer, director and playwright; and musician Andrea Rieniets, a decade ago when they set up Kids Thrive.

Kids Thrive was invited to bring Geelong Kids as Catalysts to Northern Bay College, a prep to year 12 school that has campuses at Corio and Norlane. The first two years of the four-year program engaged the college’s Year 6 students in working on community issues arising from poverty and trauma – often situations that the kids, their friends and families often face. The result so far has been 55 child-led community projects, including a collaboration between the Year 6 students and the Lara Men’s Shed members to build a picnic table at the local park for elders to use on their daily walks - promoting physical activity and wellbeing amongst the elderly community. Evaluation of the impact of the program showed that more than 80 per cent of the kids who took part in the program showed increases in areas such as social and emotional skills including confidence and teamwork; educational engagement as well as numeracy and literacy outcomes; and leadership and community engagement – all factors known to promote children’s resilience and wellbeing.

Andrea Lemon’s passion for the program she co-created is clear in her voice. So too is the clarity of the vision behind Kids Thrive and the questions that underpin its approach. “How can we get kids to take direct action? Why do they have to wait until they’re grown up, to change the world?’’ Andrea says. “So off we went.’’

The creative well-spring to the program is engaging artists in collaboration with children’s specialists – in education, social justice, health and wellbeing - to help put kids in charge of driving change in their own lives and in their community.

“It’s about the kids being able to identify what matters to them within a framework that might be provided by local community stakeholders,’’ Andrea says, “…and for kids to find their own community partner and to then co-design their own community project. This isn’t a volunteering project – like here’s a charity to go and volunteer at and learn about, which is a great approach but not what this is – this is very much child-driven. Their sense of pride in themselves and their community is so enormous at the end because of what they achieved.’’

And then there’s the moment when the kids realize they’re doing something they might never have thought possible at their age. “They always say: “I thought I had to be older to do this,’’ Andrea says.

It was all very different a decade ago. “It was seen as incredibly radical when we started. ‘What is child-led change?’ People looked at us like we were crazy’’ Andrea says. Back then, lots of kids’ engagement programs were static classroom offerings, with plenty of talking and sitting around desks.

“We use a range of creative approaches,’’ Andrea says. “And out of that, by doing that, kids quite quickly and quite simply come to identify things that they feel strongly about and forge a team with other students who also feel very strongly about that issue – frequently, those are not their friendship circle, which is always a surprise to them, but it really opens their eyes and it shows them that the people who care about the things that matter to them are not always the people they are closest to.’’

One of the distinctive elements of the Kids Thrive program is its focus on younger children. Andrea remembers a school principal during their early days summing up why it was so important to get young kids engaged. “You want to get the kids when they’ve still got the sparkle in their eye,’’ Andrea recalls. “And you want to help them retain the sparkle rather than try to rediscover it. That was the starting point for us.’’

And another school principal who identified the program as their school’s key mental health strategy for kids – showing them how to take action for change rather than seeing what is wrong with the world and being overwhelmed.

The Geelong Kids as Catalysts initiative has featured extensive community engagement, with hundreds of family and community participants at program events and over 5000 community members engaged through the kids’ community change projects, ranging from supporting women and girls, helping homeless kids, creating meaningful opportunities for refugees and addressing environmental challenges. The range is wide, meaningful and almost always personal.

“What’s been unique about this Geelong model and why it’s been …a blessing to be part of that community really, [is that] there are a lot of services and supports within the Geelong community dealing with the range of challenges that are happening there,’’ Andrea says. “And we were able to bring a range of these stakeholders into this program and for this program to become a key tool for the Communities That Care model that is happening in Northern Geelong… that’s been fantastic.’’

Geelong Kids as Catalysts has been supported by numerous funders over the past three years, including two local funders, the Give Where You Live Foundation and the Geelong Community Foundation.

“The support of these two local Community Foundations has been important to the success of Geelong Kids as Catalysts, as they bring not only the welcomed financial support, but also connections with key members in the community, and a deep understanding of the issues impacting the region,” Andrea says. 

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