We sit down with the lovely Bettina and chat about her time volunteering at Key College.
YOTS: Can you tell us a bit about your professional background and what you do for a living?
Bettina: I’ve worked since I was 13 and a half in various jobs. From factory to office, my last work was with an insurance company and banks. Then I retired and I was looking for things to do, so I got involved, for 16 years, working with people that had AIDS.
YOTS: Did you volunteer overseas for that or was that in Australia?
Bettina: No, here. It was run by a local lady who lost so many people to AIDS in the 80s, so she decided to… hire out a hall and get people with AIDS to meet and have a meal. The Sydney City Council gave some support, it was very uplifting. We had to go out and sell raffle tickets and get donations, but that folded after 16 years, so I was looking for something else and my friend who’s a director of the plays that they (Key College, Redfern) perform. He used to invite me to see the plays and I really, really appreciated those young kids. That’s when I rang Youth Off The Streets and asked if I could be a volunteer.
YOTS: How long ago was that?
Bettina: That must have been 2011
YOTS: So you’ve been a volunteer for three years?
Bettina: Yes, and I love it!
YOTS: Excellent. So the play was instrumental in your decision to support Key College, was there any particular young person or young people that caught your attention during the play?
Bettina: Well, they all did. I was hit by the honesty of those kids getting up there and telling their stories. Stories that the average person wouldn’t even know existed and then afterwards, I was talking to volunteers at Key Collage (Redfern) and they were saying how they enjoyed it, I was just lucky that I was placed there.
YOTS: Do you have a favourite memory of your time at Key College?
Bettina: I have a lot of beautiful memories. I have a really nice memory of two girls, one was on her first day and one was on her second day, and I went with Ben and Min (teachers) shopping. Anyway, they swore a lot and I just said to them ‘oh I really don’t like that word, and I really don’t like swearing’ and I was surprised that they said ‘Oh OK, we’ll try not to swear around you’ and then when we were having lunch, they were talking about drugs and things like that. I said to them ‘as you grow older, you’ll realise there’s conversations you can have with your friends and others that you have with other people… like this!’, so I was a little bit worried, but afterwards they told me that I was their very best friend. They weren’t upset at all about what I said or anything.
Oh, I must tell you about my first day. It was a nice day, so I decided to set everything up in the little yard (outside).
YOTS: Sorry to interrupt, but this was your first day, what were you put in charge of?
Bettina: Oh, well to get the lunch. I was really worried because I don’t have kids and, I was like, well what will we have. I just cut up all the salads and vegetables and took the bread out and made it all nice outside for them. When they were told they were going to eat outside in the sun, this boy –his name was Scott* – and he had tattoos up his arms… everything, when he went outside and saw it, he said to me ‘was this your idea?’ and I said ‘yeah.’ And he said ‘you’re a legend’. I got such a shock! That boy turned out to be such a nice boy, and I think Youth Off The Streets has a beautiful photo of him, with all his tattoos, hugging a bear that I gave him at the College. And he sat doing class with a bear in his arms. Those memories are really nice, but I could go on forever.
YOTS: Could you tell me another one?
Bettina: Well that first day, I didn’t know what was expected of me, I went out the back and there were cigarette butts everywhere, so I swept them all up and then we had lunch and I said to the kids “By the way, can you please put the butts in the bin, because I’ve just swept the yard and it’s easier to empty an ashtray than it is to sweep.’ I thought Oh my god, what’s going on here. And then I heard one girl say, ‘she seems nice’, OH MY GOD… I breathed a sigh of relief.
YOTS: So, there seems to be a common theme in some of those stories, where you might expect homeless kids to be tough and brutish almost, really though, they’re just sweet kids.
Bettina: Yes! Underneath. And that’s why I introduced giving them a soft toy. Min said ‘Oh good luck with that!’, but that was so effective.
YOTS: How long have you been giving them soft toys for?
Bettina: Every year.
YOTS: Has there been a favourite reaction that you’ve seen to receiving a soft toy?
Bettina: Well yea, Scott with the tattoos. He hugged his all day and he took it home. The next time I saw him he said ‘by the way, I take my bear to bed every night’. And I said ‘oh that’s good, that’s good’. Then, one day he said to me, ‘I had a girl stay over last night.’ I said ‘Oh did you?’ I thought, where’s this going! And he said ‘Yeah, and she was cranky at me because I went to sleep cuddling the bear instead of her’. Awwwwwww. Later, down the track, I was asked to go to court for his case… to support him. I might add… I’d never done all this until I was at Key College. And he told me he still had his bear. Then there was another boy who told me that he always tucks his bear up in his bed when he goes to school. There are some kids that don’t bother taking them home, but play with them at school. The majority of kids do take them home and really do appreciate it.
YOTS: You mentioned that you went to court for Scott, Have you done that more?
Bettina: I went once for Scott and I went for Alexandra* and Tom*.
YOTS: What do you like to do when you’re not spending your time at Key College?
Bettina: Well I sing in a choir. I belong to the Red Hat ladies. They are a group of women, over 50, that meet just to have fun, you go on trips and things like that, but you have to wear purple clothes and a red hat. It started in America and now it has spread all over the world. They say ‘growing old, disgracefully’.
YOTS: That’s fantastic.
Bettina: Yes and whenever I can, I meet up with them and we go to lunch somewhere or go to a show. I like doing that. I used to belong to the laughing club, which was a group of people you meet in the park and you laugh and do exercises. I did a writing course and we had two books produced by the Sydney City Council. I try to keep busy.
YOTS: What is something about yourself that might surprise someone?
Bettina: Well, I used to perform on stage at the gay social club’s dance. They have dances about four times a year, the men get dressed up in drag and do a show. I knew a few of them, I did join and I was lucky enough to go in about four or five shows. That was fun.
YOTS: Actually, when I met you there was a video clip going around of you…
Bettina: Oh! My Darlinghurst.
YOTS: Yea! My Darlinghurst that’s it.
Bettina: Ha-ha. That’s right. It was the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, which is very good for homeless people and everybody. To raise funds they approached the Dendy theatre to have a competition. It was called Sydney Vision, to compete with Eurovision, and it was to ask people to enter a song that they wrote and they perform about the area they live. My friend wrote the song, and I performed and they filmed it. We were lucky enough to win the people’s choice and the choir that I sing in, we also put an entry in and we came second in the people’s choice. So it was good!
*names have been changed to protect the young person’s privacy