It is my pleasure to report again on the work of Make a Difference in 2013/14 – a work that centres on a small group of children and young people who are highly vulnerable, and who due to their circumstances, need special supports to enable them to emerge from their childhood and adolescence with the capacity to lead happy and workable adult lives.

Again this year we have had pleasing developments in our program, which I am delighted to outline for you.

In short, we have doubled our staffing from one part-time worker to two, with the employment of a clinical director to focus on running our retreats and supporting our children and young people between retreats - and we have expanded our retreat program.

These developments were made possible by our increasing income, and by our proactive approach to planning – we forge ahead as soon as there is evidence of stable, ongoing funding to justify growth.

A Brief History

In our first eleven years of operation, Make a Difference was primarily a grant-making organisation, providing financial and mentoring support to children and their families in severe hardship in western and south-western Sydney.

 Horseriding on retreat

Horseriding on retreat

No-one in the organisation was paid, and we used the existing personal or business resources of Board members to avoid the need for rents or other infrastructure costs: we virtually only spent money directly on clients.

In 2011, the Board decided to develop services in line with some cutting edge work that had been developed by our Founder in her ‘day job’, as a Program Manager with NSW Health, over the previous four years.

In January 2012 we engaged our first paid staff member, John Gelagin, as a Business Manager.

John began to lay the foundations for our program development, including developing a sustainable stream of funding and leading the Board in a review of our vision and strategy.

Our new vision saw us working with vulnerable children and young people in the highest category of need, and reducing the size of our retreat groups to accommodate their high needs.

We ran our first retreat for high-needs boys in June 2013.

Then, in September 2013, we were able to appoint our Hon CEO and Founder, Mandy Miles, as a part-time Clinical Director - a milestone for our organisation to have a dedicated resource to

sustain our ongoing relationships with the young people - and we went on to run a further three weekend retreats in 2013/14.

As part of this change, Mandy relinquished the Hon CEO position she had held since the inception of Make a Difference, and John Gelagin became CEO.

As we look towards 2014/15, we have an established pattern of four weekend retreats annually (two retreats for a group of six boys and two retreats for a group of five girls), and we currently have a funding application in with St George to double the size of the program.

Our Service

 Beautiful Kangaroo Valley - where we hold our retreats

Beautiful Kangaroo Valley - where we hold our retreats

While our weekend retreats are the backbone of our program, there are also some other important elements.

Mandy provides individual support to young people as needed between retreats, and oversees a small mentoring program between some of our leaders and young people.

Mandy may, as required, occasionally provide a brief intervention with the families of the children also.

It is our plan to establish a program of reunion days and working bees at the property, so that the children and young people can develop a sense of increased ownership of the property and the program, and importantly, have greater access to the support network provided both by their peers, and by the adults who make up the program.

In total we are now supporting approximately 15 young people from South West Sydney.

Our Model

Our retreats are based on six volunteer adults and six children or young people being away together at our Kangaroo Valley property from Friday afternoon till Sunday afternoon, with the whole weekend being facilitated by Mandy.

We currently have two retreat groups – a boys retreat, and a girls retreat – and our children are guaranteed two camps a year throughout their adolescence.

Most models for working with children in any context have one thing in common: authority and control belongs to the adults.

Mandy’s work with marginalised kids who have been thrown out of mainstream school, who are semi-illiterate as a result of their troubled school participation, and who are living in disadvantaged if not criminalised environments, has shown clearly that it is impossible to develop close, collaborative relationships with these children using a model where adults are primarily agents of control.

Fortunately, Mandy was able to design an innovative model where adults and children are equal, and they equally share responsibility for control within the group.

It is important to note that it is not that there isn't an authority structure, just that authority is vested in the group as a whole, and not in adults, or in any individual or sub-set of the group. We find that the group exercises authority over itself at least as stridently as any adult would have.

It appears that authority is no longer toxic for these children when it is governed by peers. Adults, in this model, are peers as much as the other children are.

The mutual respect inherent in this approach has allowed a kind of intimacy to develop which is rare indeed in any program, let alone in one working with a supposedly ‘difficult’ client group. There is no yawning chasm of emotional distance between the adults and the children in this model, as appears to be the case in almost any other program one can name.

It has been a fascinating journey to develop this model, and now to build our retreats around it.

What is becoming clear is that each retreat group has its own evolutionary process, and the way each group deals with its issues, and its members, and the culture it develops, will be unique to it – a subtle and complex blend of the personalities, both adult and child, who make it up, and the history they build together gradually over time.

The adults who currently participate in our retreats will not have seen the model applied yet, because it cannot be implemented until the group has experienced a need to ‘manage’ itself. That is, a certain level of tension or stress is needed before a group is ready to consciously implement a system of control.

The boys’ retreat group is now approaching that point, due mostly to the unruly behaviour of one member at two previous retreats. It is likely that the group will negotiate a democratic system of management and problem-solving at the upcoming November retreat.

The girls’ retreat has not experienced internal stress, and at this point, operates collaboratively with no major issues to resolve which would require a structured system of control. This may or may not change over time.

Our Young People

Our children and young people are energetic, caring, sensitive, empathic, driven, intelligent, thoughtful, capable, responsible, and burdened by many things in their lives.

We have a model that brings out the very best in our young people, some of whom, in other contexts, may be described more as tough, unthinking or out-of-control.

It has been instructive for me, as I have worked with these kids over many years now, to see how the approach you use can bring out the best or the worst in them.

One thing that it has been interesting to observe is that these young people do not want a counsellor, or a ‘talking head’ of any kind. They are, however, very much looking for an attachment figure and an authentic relationship with an adult they trust, and at base that is what our program most seeks to provide for them: a group of happy, balanced adults who are capable of focusing on them, building their self-esteem by authentically offering praise whenever possible, and being emotionally available to them.

We also seek to offer a deeper connection with one or a couple of employed staff with the empathy and skill to engage meaningfully with them between camps.

It should be said that it would not be possible simply to invite some needy young people along, organise food and a venue, and you have a retreat. These young people are very marginalised and they do not normally engage with services. There is hardly one of them that is engaged with any other service, because they are hard-to-reach.

There is a great deal of work that goes into engaging them – and there is a set of beliefs and attitudes you must develop, without which you can’t get to first base with them.

The quality of the personal connection our skilled clinical staff (whom we refer to as ‘support staff’ because our children and their families have a distrust of the word ‘clinical’) can develop is what allows a relationship of trust to be established which in turns allows the young people to be sufficiently comfortable to attend the retreats, and enjoy the benefits and relationships that flow from the retreats. 

That sort of relationship takes time, skill and a genuine interest in the well-being of the young person to develop. It is not uncommon for Mandy to work with a child for two years or more before they have the courage to attend a retreat. After their first retreat, they never miss another.

What is holding back our further development of the retreat program at present is that we need more skilled staff hours to be able to recruit children, and then to support them between retreats.

As crucial as the retreat program is, the work with the kids begins long before, and requires a fairly heavy investment of paid staff time to be able to initiate and maintain it.

Our Volunteers

The quality of our retreats depends a lot on the availability of our volunteers, and on the way they conduct their role.

I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the enormously valuable contribution of the adults who participate on our retreats. They include:

Antonia Nunes
Loretta Cappie-Wood
Zahraa Ahadzada
Nilar Win
Andrew Erskine
Ed Massey
Laurence Jervis
Megan Walbyoff
Tim Keith
Grant Lucas
Gaul Dang
Ken Cappie-Wood
Ricky Rudduck
Kevin Summerell

Thanks so much to you all!

We now hold regular Information Days at the property in Kangaroo Valley, where adults who may have an interest in becoming involved with our retreats can learn more about what we do.

We encourage approaches from any member of the public who cares about kids and may be interested to get involved.

Our Board

Throughout our whole fourteen-year history we have been very fortunate to have an engaged, supportive Board, and I express my thanks and gratitude to all who have been part of bringing us to where we are today.

Traditionally we have had little turnover, and in the last two years the composition of the Board has remained the same except for the addition of Suzanne Mackenzie who joined the Board as Treasurer late in the financial year.

Suzanne brings a wealth of financial and accounting experience to Make a Difference and it is a delight to welcome her to the Board.

The great progress we have made in recent years could not have occurred without the passion, the courage and the business acumen of our Board, and I am deeply indebted to them. Thank you. I look forward to working with you into the future.

Our Future Plans

Looking forward, our plans involve expanding our retreat program to support 30 young people – a doubling of our current program. The speed with which we achieve this goal will depend purely on our capacity to generate further funding for our work – particularly the funding for more paid staff hours for engaging with and supporting our kids. The model exists and we have the property, and some funding to develop the property. Further funding will allow us to increase our staffing and grow the program. Make a Difference does not receive any ongoing Government support so we are totally dependant on the money we raise ourselves to fund our operations.

I am pleased to report that in 2013/14 we brought in $147,893, which represented a small surplus. This represents nearly double the income of the previous year ($81,674).

A key ingredient of this improved fundraising performance was our second ever Fundraising Dinner (the previous one being in 2006).  It was a Gatsby themed evening, which took place at Doltone House in Pyrmont in May 2014 and was attended by 180 people. The event raised over $35,000.

We were delighted to have some of our young people attend the event, and to be addressed by Kevin Summerell and Ricky Rudduck, both of whom have benefited from our program over many years, and who shared some of their journey. It was very moving to hear their stories.

Thanks Kevin and Ricky for your contribution, which really made the night.

My thanks to the wonderful Events Committee that organised the dinner. I know that many hours of hard work went into making it such a success, and I am very grateful to the team:

 The Events Committee finally get a chance to relax!

The Events Committee finally get a chance to relax!

Louise Robertson
Szemei Ng
Myron Festejo
Megan Walbyoff
Christine Lai

Many thanks, too, to John who also worked very hard towards making that night a success, and who performs such a crucial role in so many ways, and skilfully wears so many diverse ‘hats’ as he leads Make a Difference capably into the future.

It would be remiss of me not to also recognise the many people who trained and suffered in support of our other major fund-raiser, the City2Surf. I won’t try to list you all here, and the important support crowd who sponsored them, but a big thank you – our run each year brings in around the same amount of funding as our dinner did, and it is a crucial part of our financial support each year.

At the end of the 2013/14 financial year, the Board agreed on a clear strategy for the next two years. This is listed on our website – please feel free to visit our site and have a read through the six goals we have set for ourselves to achieve by 30th June 2016.

Make a Difference is blessed to now have such a large group of caring and supportive people assisting us on so many levels. The real beneficiaries of all this support and care are the great children and young people that we support.

I thank you all on their behalf.

Mandy Miles
October 2014