Winner of the 2023 Outstanding Volunteer Award

SMECC Homework Club, Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council

We interviewed Claire Kelly, a volunteer at SMECC Homework Club, about winning Outstanding Volunteer at the 2023 MY Education Awards.

Claire Kelly with The Hon. Natalie Hutchins, Minister for Education & Women

Congratulations on winning the Outstanding Volunteer Award. What is it like volunteering at SMECC homework club?

Thank you, it is a humbling honour to be recognised in this field by the Centre for Multicultural Youth. Reading the achievements of other nominees, I thought them all very well deserving of the award, so was quite shocked to receive the accolade.

SMECC Homework Club, or Hub as we have called it, is a new venture for SMECC with funding made available for 2023. There was an after-school program running in 2022, which I was responsible for signing students up to, however, students treated it as a fun time with friends rather than a serious time to study, hence the name change. The 2023 plan was to allocate time and volunteers for students to complete their homework, however to also incorporate activities related to student interest and aspirations. All our attendees are from refugee or refugee like backgrounds, primarily from Afghanistan, and the DR Congo.

To me the most important aspect of Homework Clubs is the time available to students to catch up on the learning they have missed out on. Many refugee students have had little or no prior schooling, so the SMECC Homework Hub offers a way they can keep up with the demands of mainstream schooling.

Jackson Mugenzi, the SMECC Homework Hub Coordinator, has worked incredibly hard to make the program engaging for students. We mix a range of activities with learning. We invite other organisations to come and speak to the students, whether that be on employment, water safety, or media. Jackson organises outings to the local Police Station, ABC Station, and the Arts Hub, expanding on their life experiences and areas which the students have a future interest in.

Overall, volunteering with the SMECC Homework Hub is a privilege. I feel Jackson does most of the work, but I am involved in the planning and particularly behaviour management and expectations. The SMECC Homework Hub has become so popular that a female Youth Worker has been employed so we can now run two groups concurrently.

You have also been the Assistant Principal of Mildura English Language Centre for five years. What drives you to work with students from refugee and migrant backgrounds?

My first work as a teacher was in Melbourne as a CRT in 1999. I worked at schools across Melbourne, from the east to the west, then one day I was employed at Debney Meadows English Language Centre. I never knew such schools existed, that the Victorian Government, as part of their settlement policy for refugees and migrants, offered the New Arrivals Program (NAP) to support non-English speaking children and their families. I was hooked.

Working with refugee and migrant students is one of the most rewarding jobs in education. Most students want to learn; they want to achieve; they are respectful of teachers and understand that education can lead to a better life. The best part for me is learning about the world through them and their families. As an AP I am in the privileged position of being their first contact with the Australian education system, I strive to make that initial experience a positive one.

The reality is that I could be watching the news and crying at the plight of refugees in a war-stricken nation and six months later those same children could be sitting in front of me. It feels like I am contributing something meaningful to the world. Australia, the country that I love, offers refugees a new home, a new chance at a better life. I am determined they will get it.

Your colleagues have said that your “genuine passion and advocacy is inspiring, not only to the students, but all those around [you]”. How does it feel knowing you’ve had a positive impact on so many people?

Wow, to be honest, I didn’t know. Day-to-day I am doing what I think is important to make the world a better place, I didn’t think anyone was taking any notice. I don’t have a family, children, parents, etc., so I am essentially alone in the world. I decided that instead of being aggrieved by this, I would spend my days giving to other people, giving to my community. If this has inspired others to do the same, then I am very happy there are more people out there helping in the community.

On top of volunteering at SMECC, I am also a member of the SMECC Board of Management and volunteer on the Mildura Film Society committee, which screens foreign language and independent films in Mildura once a month. I also volunteer on the committee of the local community radio station, Hot FM, as the Multicultural Programs Coordinator, which involves engaging members of Mildura’s multicultural community to present weekly radio programs in their language.

However, the most rewarding “volunteering” I do is just helping students and families I know.Encouraging, supporting, and celebrating successes goes a long way in helping youth engage and aspire to keep going, despite the difficulties they face compared to their Australian born peers.

All past and present students and their families know they can come to me for support with anything. I’ve helped students needing emergency housing, enrol into TAFE pathways and complete the necessary literacy and numeracy assessments, apply for and find work, act as a referee, deal with difficult work situations with employers, apply for tax file numbers and access counselling sessions. When I sit and list it all, I am sure there are things left off. I’m not trying to brag, I guess I am trying to demonstrate to CMY that they did give the award to an eligible winner.

All of this I see as my contribution to my community. I am in the privileged position of being literate in English, and understanding bureaucracy, which is something refugee families need to complete all the paperwork demands of being in a western society. I want to share that skill and help these families that I have come to know so well, to adapt and receive the new life Australia promised them.

What does winning the award mean to you?

Winning the CMY Outstanding Volunteer Award has made me stop and reflect. I didn’t know that I did so much for my community in so many ways, and I certainly didn’t know it had been noticed. I’ve never sought recognition or acknowledgement; in fact, I avoid it as much as possible. All I need is the happiness of the families I know and love. However, this recognition has made me reflect more on self-care, as without my own health, I cannot keep contributing in the ways that I have.

People often say to me, “Claire, what do you do for yourself?” I’ve tried Zumba, mosaics, pottery, the gym, and any other number of hobbies. They are fun for a little, but they don’t fulfil me. Helping others fuels my soul.

It humbles me greatly to think those things I was doing with the SMECC Homework Hub and with students and their families has been formally recognised by an organisation such as CMY. My only hope is that my contribution has helped the refugee community of Mildura find a place to call home.

Claire Kelly with homework club coordinator Jackson Mugenzi

Photo credit: Harjono Djoyobisono

To find out how Learning Beyond the Bell can support your OSHLSP, click here.