They are a group of young women who come from the most harrowing of backgrounds but their futures have never been brighter.
There’s one Ballarat man, who decided more than a decade ago, that every teenage mum deserves to be loved, supported and educated. On Friday afternoon the award-winning program for young mums celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Yuille Park Community College. The success of the group is the coinage of Ballarat councillor and teacher Peter Innes.
“Some of them have had some horrible, horrible experiences,” he said. “They’ve been sexually abused or experienced violence. We never judge anybody. As soon as they walk through the door, they get treated like family.” It all started in 2006. Mr Innes was working alongside young mums at the Wendouree West Community House as part of his job as a teacher.
“I got thinking, what are the barriers for them? How do we get them back into education and back into the community?” Mr Innes said. “We started creating a whole lot of different domains around how we could help them with things like fiances and education.” For Mr Innes, there is no educational, financial, legal, housing, transport or substance abuse problem he won’t bend over backwards to solve.
“We have the belief there is nothing too hard that we won’t try and overcome,” Mr Innes said. “We can look at any aspect of a young mum’s life and we can get her back on track no matter what.”
His mantra is simple. “Social and emotional well-being are key,” he said. “Without that you’ll never get education.”
Over the years, the group has helped more than 100 young disadvantaged mums complete their secondary education and woven into the fabric of the lives of the girls. Lifelong friendships have been made and in some cases a family. Countless educational courses have been undertaken as empowered young mums chase their dreams. For, Ash Peterson, 27, the group was a lifeline in her darkest days. She was left feeling ostracised and alone when she fell pregnant at 16.
“The group completely change my life,” she said. “It became a safe place where I could go, where I could vent and where I didn’t feel alone or judged because we were all going through the same thing.”
Ms Peterson’s son Jordy turns 11 this year. She was one of the first young women to join the program. She completed her Certificate IV in Alcohol and Other Drugs through the program. In the years following she has worked in youth justice and retail.
“Peter and the staff opened me to so many experiences and new ways of thinking,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had the education or amazing life I do without them.” There have been countless milestones over the years. But there are some which will never leave Mr Innes including when the girls made their debutante ball for the first in 2009.
“The looks on the faces of the girls during their deb was one of the most special moments,” he said.
“The pride and happiness in their eyes. They were doing something that every young girl deserves to do. They knew in that moment that there were people who cared about them.”
A decade ago, Mr Innes had a dream of a house for the girls next to a playground. In 2013, Ballarat man Shane Dorney helped to make it a reality when he purchased the Delacombe Community House.
It was a lasting legacy for the terminally ill man with heart of gold and testament to the profound impact the young mums group was having on the wider Ballarat community.
Mr Dorney died after a long battle with cancer in 2014.
“We never could have imagined the support and generosity we continue to get from the wider community,” Mr Innes said. “I have no doubt that some of these girls, wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t intervened. The moral and social implications of what we are doing changes lives for ever.”
Kelly McMillan, 23, doesn’t like to think about how her life would have turned out had she not joined the young mums program. She was 15-years-old and completely alone when she fell pregnant with her first son Thomas who is now 7.
“I was in a pretty bad place back then,” Ms McMillan said. “I came from quite an abusive partner. I didn't have much hope back then. But the first day I went there and met the group...it completely changed my life."
The now mum of four, said the program taught her valuable life skills and helped her rebuild her life by breaking a cycle of abuse.
Mr Innes knows better than anyone, for every young woman who picks herself and her precious baby up, there is another who needs the group’s help. The group is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Mr Innes is lobbying for a cross-ministerial funding model to roll-out the program nationally.
“It just needs government support, if you had that, you’d have these programs everywhere,” Mr Innes said. “We need a cross-ministerial funding model so the support comes from various different ministers and budgets.” He said this would allow for schools to release their staff to be involved in the program on a full-time basis.
“The program needs full-time staff, five days week, who are prepared to go above and beyond to improve the lives of the girls,” Mr Innes said.
Crowds of young mums and their children travelled from all over Australia for the reunion. There was tears and laughter.
Days ago, Mr Innes received a letter from a young woman he helped years ago who couldn’t make it to the reunion. Now an adult, she was a young teenager when she fell pregnant with her son. She was overwhelmed, frightened and alone in the world with no support from her family.
The words in the letter filled his heart. “You helped me dream of a future for myself and my son that I never thought possible and work towards it,” it read. “You helped me get back into school, get my license, get a house I was proud of, get things I previously couldn't provide my son. I’ve worked hard to get where I am now but I owe so much to you and the program you started. You believed and inspired me to dream big and want more. And I got it.”
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