Speaking from the heart

Post: Speaking from the heart

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“When you have someone who believes in you, you feel powerful, you feel unstoppable, so just keep believing in them.”

In a special session at the recent Western Australian professional development day, eight former and current students stepped up onto the stage to talk about the impact of Girls Academy and their staff. With open-hearted messages such as the one above from Year 12 student Paige Smith, it’s safe to say more than a few tears were shed.

Girls Academy staff are usually the ones giving encouragement and praise, so it was nice for them to be on the receiving end, even if some were squirming uncomfortably at the unexpected attention.

The 90-strong audience, which also included corporate partners, listened intently as these impressive women shared a little of their stories and their hopes and dreams.

Jasmine Yarran is one of Girls Academy’s earliest alumni, graduating from Clontarf Girls Academy in 2006. She is now the company secretary and operations officer at the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations in Melbourne, though coronavirus has meant she’s been working remotely from WA for much of this year.  After being asked to fill in as CEO, Jasmine has her sights firmly set on a similar role in the future.

Jacinta Bourne has come full circle. After graduating from Kalgoorlie Girls Academy, when it was still in its early stages, and pursuing a basketball career with Perth Lynx in the WNBL, she is now a development officer in her old Academy. While she had great support from her family growing up, she knows many other girls are not as fortunate.

“I wanted to go home and give back to my community and all the girls I knew, who probably need it more than I did,” she said. “And I know the impact Girls Academy has on the community.”

Paige Corunna, who graduated from St Brigid’s Girls Academy last year, is doing a government traineeship in the Public Sector Commission and is working at the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation in strategic policy, while Tahleshja Waller, who graduated from Coodanup Girls Academy last year, is working at an insurance company while doing her certificate III in business.

Jarnda Councillor-Barns, who graduated from Geraldton Girls Academy last year, is doing a bridging course at the University of Western Australia. The effervescent student has big plans after she finishes a double degree in political science and international relations, with Indigenous knowledge, history and heritage thrown in for good measure.

“My ultimate goal is to be the Minister for Indigenous Affairs,” she said. And we reckon she’d shake Parliament up, not to mention add a healthy dose of humour. “As a strong, independent black woman you cannot shut us up, so if we have more of us there, just imagine how much change there would be. And everything would be close to perfect!”

Like Paige Smith, Kawlija Brahim is in Year 12 at Swan View Girls Academy. While Paige is reaching for sporting heights — she has been selected for the 2029 Olympic softball team and offered scholarships at several universities in the United States — Kawlija has her sights set closer to home.

“I’ve been given an unconditional offer from the University of Western Australia to study a bachelor of arts majoring in psychology and society,” she said. “It gives me the opportunity to do counselling, youth work, community development, all areas that enable me to help people and make a difference in the community.”

Fellow Year 12 student Annie Coyne, who is at Clontarf Girls Academy, may not have as clear a picture of her future yet, but she knows one thing for sure. “Something I really want to do is support people like you guys do.”

And it’s abundantly clear that all eight women, who are at different ages and stages of their lives, value the support they received at Girls Academy.

“All the women are role models to me, they are super powerful,” Kawlija said. “I want to be able to inspire young girls the same way they inspire me.”

Paige Smith said while her family were a huge support with her sporting commitments, taking her to every single training session, the Academy helped her pick up the slack in her education. “Having the Academy there to say ‘Paige, you do need an education as well, softball’s not going to pay the bills, education is … having the support from them really helped me realise that education is first.” It’s why this talented softballer also has an eye on a law degree.

Paige Corunna said she never would have applied for the traineeship she’s doing now if she hadn’t attended Girls Academy’s Year 12 Summit in Sydney last year. It opened her eyes to a world of possibilities.

For Jarnda, the support from Geraldton Girls Academy staff came just when she needed it most. “I’m very grateful for all the support I was given because the ball was dropping as I entered Year 12, the motivation was starting to dimmer,” she said. “They’ll tell you straight out … ‘go to class, complain later, just get the grades up’. The support was amazing.”

Tahleshja said the encouragement of Coodanup Girls Academy staff really helped her through high school. “They always listen. They never give up on us. I felt quite left out at school; I was always the only Indigenous person either in my class or year. I was not a good student at the start but by the end … I was a lot better.”

And it wasn’t just the staff in the Academy who got her through, with Tahleshja describing post school transition officer Didi Conway as a second mum. “I don’t think I applied for one job by myself; she does everything for me,” she said. “She took me to my first interview, with the traineeship that I’m doing now.”

Asked what advice each would give Girls Academy staff, Jarnda encouraged them to take the time to get to know the girls personally. “I’m very different to my sister girls up here and there’s so many girls in the Academies, no two are the same,” she said. “If you’re going to impact one person, learn how they work and then you can work on the next girl, and the next girl.”

Paige Corunna said positive reinforcement made all the difference. “Let the girls know their worth and what they deserve because I think that can be their biggest driver that they can have, and that’s how they can be successful.”

“It’s hard for girls to open up but when you guys are so supportive, it actually does help,” Annie said. “Even though a lot of girls won’t show it, they do take a lot from what you give us, and hopefully that makes us give back out to the world.”

Jasmine had a similar message, reminding staff that even when it appears otherwise, the girls really value their support.  “They really do care and appreciate all the hard work that you do,” she said.

As Kawlija put it so succinctly: “I know that some of the girls in the Academy can be a piece of work and it can get hard, but please don’t give up on us.”

We can assure you Kawlija, and all the girls in our program, that will never happen.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.