Betty’s journey to volunteering at Key College began with a desire to make a difference.
A keen charity volunteer, she was looking for a new activity when she heard Father Chris Riley speaking about Youth Off The Streets’ schools. Feeling inspired by his mission, she applied for an interview.
“Father Riley says education is the ‘key’ to a better future. And I got put here, at Key College.”
Key College is one of Youth Off The Streets’ six registered and accredited independent high schools.
Established in 1996, the small school provides individualised education and support for young people in Years 9 and 10 who have become disengage from mainstream education.
Building their self-esteem, the school empowers them to achieve and develop the knowledge, skills and attributes necessary to enjoy a healthy and meaningful life.
Betty, now 81, has been a Youth Off The Streets school volunteer for over a decade. However, on her first day she was unsure how she would connect with the students.
“I turned up expecting to be behind the scenes, preparing lunches for them in a group. But when I arrived, it was just me and a fridge full of food.
“I didn’t know what I was expecting – an office, or a big campus or something. But Key College is tiny! It’s just so beautiful here, it’s like a comfy little house.”
Although unsure what teenagers would like to eat, Betty was tasked with preparing lunch. She assembled what she could find. It being a bright sunny day, she suggested to the school manager that they serve lunch in the backyard.
“I got a loaf of bread and butter, I made a salad and I set the table. The kids could make their own sandwiches. When the teacher announced they were eating outside, they were so excited! They’d never done that before.
“It was really good to see them socialising and helping prepare each other’s meals.”
From then on, it was clear that Betty had a remarkable ability to connect with the students through simple acts of kindness.
“What I love about working with Betty is that she is so funny, so full of life, such a great personality,” shares Jo Nicholson, Key College’s School Manager.
“When the young people meet her, they feel so comfortable and happy. And they can’t help but be those things back to her.
“Our young people have had many experiences that aren’t kind. They may have had a fight with someone at home the night before. Now, at school, someone’s offering to make them a sandwich, a cup of tea, to give them a hug – or just to chat. It shows they’re cared for.”
Betty quickly learned the value of these small kindnesses.
After a few weeks of volunteering, realising how many of the students needed emotional support, Betty bought them teddy bears.
“I decided to bring soft toys to school. The school manager back then said, ‘Good luck with that’.
“But it was amazing! A kid with tattoos and his friend sat at their desks working, and they had the bears on their desk. The kid says to me, ‘Is this your idea?’ And I thought, oh no, here we go.
“He goes on to say, ‘You’re a legend.’ That was so amazing.”
On an excursion, Betty was amused to see the students carrying their bears with them. And when Betty gave one young person a large teddy bear, he refused a bag to carry it home in.
“He’s got this bear and he goes to catch the train, carrying it under his arm. The boys surprise you sometimes.”
Betty quickly became a companion to the students in their learning and extracurricular activities.
Often, she would simply sit in class and contribute alongside the students. Suggesting ideas, brainstorming and asking questions, she helped students feel comfortable to engage with their learning.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Betty would accompany them on school camps and excursions.
She even took a memorable turn onstage as ‘Shazza’ in a student-written play.
“We ran a drama program in partnership with a theatre, and the young people were tasked with writing a short play,” Jo recalls. “They wanted to evoke different family relationships, so Betty was cast as a social worker called ‘Shazza’. Betty gave her all to those sessions and she loved performing with the young people. They had a marvellous time.”
“The costume I wore was terrible!” Betty laughs. “But the stories written by the kids were very good, and insightful about their home lives.”
Being a Youth Off The Streets school volunteer is not without its challenges. But Betty has taken them in her stride.
“Hanging out with teenagers, it keeps you young, it keeps you active,” explains Jo. “I think volunteers can gain new experiences of life.
“Of course, there are many behaviours here that you might not be used to in the wider community. And it might not be a warm interaction the first time.
“Our young people can take a little while to trust adults who are new to them. But if a volunteer is consistent, if they keep coming back, they will respect and appreciate that.”
“Don’t give the kids any pity or anything like that. They don’t want you to feel sorry for them or anything, because that’s their little world.
“You’re entering into their world.”
For Jo, the real impact of a Youth Off The Streets school volunteer is the sense of community they create.
“When our young people meet these wonderful volunteers, they’re able to connect with adults who really care about them and are interested in their wellbeing. Their relationships develop really beautifully.
“With Betty, they have a role model who is a healthy, positive, wonderful, curious woman. They can aspire to be like her.”