Terrie was on leave during my first two weeks at Lighthouse Foundation, which meant everyone was in a mild panic. I imagined her as some sort of fierce and almighty deity, rather than the humble, compassionate, hardworking and hilarious woman I would get to know over the next two and a half years. Terrie was my work mum; always there when I needed advice on work, life or love – and never afraid of a bit of casual swearing. But what I admired most about Terrie was the way she interacted with the young people Lighthouse supported, giving them the patience, care and affection they’d been missing.
“In the 80’s, something happened to change my sister-in-law, Sue’s life. She was in Sri Lanka adopting her eldest daughter from an orphanage. While volunteering there, a baby she had spent hours nursing passed away. Sue returned to Australia committed to helping other young people who were alone in the world and needed the care and support of a family.
I always wanted to do something for mankind- I just didn’t know what exactly.
I was part of a big family growing up so I was always mum’s helper. I learnt early on how to care for people and I was very aware of those who were less fortunate than me. I wanted to make some kind of difference, but I’m not an ‘out there’ person. I enjoy being in a support role. I think that’s why I ended up supporting Sue to realise her vision for Lighthouse Foundation.
I was a single Mum. When my son was 12 months old we ended up living in a house in Heathmont with Sue and her six children. At that stage, Sue had started fostering and it wasn’t long before we had nine kids living under the one roof. Looking back, I have no idea how we all fit – it was a small house!
Every time Sue told me another kid was moving in, my immediate thought would be something practical like, ‘oh gosh, where are we going to put them?’ or, ‘how on earth are we going to feed them?’ Sue was the visionary and I was the pragmatist. We’ve maintained those roles ever since.
But Sue didn’t stop there. She sought support from a community group to buy caravans so we could offer more kids a home. After someone in this network suggested that turning her work into a charitable organisation would be a more effective solution, Lighthouse Foundation was born.
30 years later, we have a number of homes dotted around Melbourne, but family remains at the heart of what we do. We provide homeless young people, who’ve come from backgrounds of long term abuse and neglect with not only a home, but a sense of family and around the clock therapeutic care.
There’s something about this place and the people that surround it – the young people, the staff, the volunteers. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it keeps us here.
The young people we work with have been brought into this world, abused and neglected – often by the people who are meant to love them. They’ve wound up homeless, through no fault of their own. They’ve fallen through the cracks in our society and it’s just not fair.
So, we provide them with more than a roof over their heads – we provide a home. Each home is shared by up to four young people. They can personalise their rooms to create their own little sanctuary. They have the love of live-in carers and psychological support from our office based counselors. And we’re there for these kids for life. They can come back at any time to have dinner at their old home, have coffee with their carer, access our counselling services or just pop into the office for a visit.
Today, a mother and baby from our Mums ‘N Bubs program were visiting the office. This program supports homeless teenage mothers in the early stages of parenting. I’ve recently become a grandmother so, I have a baby in my life who is totally adored and surrounded by kindness and love. So, I find it particularly hard when I see tiny kids, like this little baby today, who have been born into a cycle of disadvantage. Her mother had her at 15 and she just wants to be a kid herself.
But today this baby turned one and was surrounded by over 25 people from our office, who were all there just for her. We sang happy birthday, ate cake and made a big deal of it. Her young mum may not have experienced this kind of affection and attention growing up, so it was also a celebration and acknowledgement for her.
I can’t really find the right words for moments like this – they’re priceless.
Our psychologists talk about what we do from a therapeutic and theoretical perspective, but Sue and I still talk from a mother’s point of view. I’m probably a bit ‘na na noony’ but I think it’s all about love and I do love these kids. I have such high regard for them and for their courage and resilience.
Our work is based around a Therapeutic Family Model of Care which has been around from the beginning really… it just didn’t have a name! When Sue and I lived in Heathmont we used to have regular family meetings that would involve a process called ‘I feel like saying.’ We would pass a heart shaped pillow around and the kids would take it in turns to talk about their feelings. As we grew to form Lighthouse and welcome more kids, these practices became more formalised. Being in a supportive environment means the young people can articulate themselves without fear of judgement or interruption.
When kids first move in, they usually express simple emotions like anger. But when you let them explore what they’re feeling in a safe environment, they begin articulating that perhaps it’s not anger, but frustration, or fear, or sadness. Maybe when we see a kid who’s pissed off with the world, underneath it all they’re just fucking scared and lonely.
At Lighthouse, we have a trauma informed approach, which means we see beyond behaviours. We realise that someone is the way they are today because of the trauma in their lives and if you deal with the effects of that trauma, their behaviours start to change.
For example, a young boy recently came to us after being in juvenile detention. When he arrived, he acted like the tough guy. He was covered in tattoos and was talking the language. But looking beyond these behaviours, I could see a boy who hadn’t been tucked into bed or cuddled much, a boy who hadn’t been surrounded by what he needed growing up. As he settled into his new life at Lighthouse, we saw his barrier of toughness relaxing. It’s not nirvana everyday but you can see him softening at the edges, and his actions suddenly coming from that softness rather than hardness. He even offered a volunteer a cup of tea the other day!
For so many of these kids, all they need is family or a sense of belonging.
We may be a hotch potch family, but we are a family. If I ask my son about his happiest memories, they are the times spent at Heathmont with all of the other kids. And when I think about my own favourite memories, I remember snapshots of everyday things … eating ice cream together or sitting around the lounge room laughing- coming together as a family.
These moments of happiness and love remind me that, despite their past, there is great hope for these kids and their future.”