ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 1, Winter 2011

Community contributors

Community contributors

ACU alumni are making a difference right around the world. Here, four graduates prove that the most rewarding career doesn't necessarily follow the well-trodden path.

Swag goes global

Realising the negative effects that lack of sleep and lying on concrete has on the physical and mental health of homeless people, schoolteacher Jean Madden came up with the Street Swag back in 2005.

Made from lightweight waterproof canvas and a foam mattress, the swag has room for extra belongings and can be folded into a bag, helping to preserve the dignity of the homeless and acting as a deterrent to theft and violence.

Jean, who graduated from ACU's Brisbane Campus in arts, education and theology, said that more than 15,000 Street Swags have been distributed to those sleeping rough around the country so far.

"I felt it just wasn't good enough that people in my community were sleeping on concrete each night… I wanted to ease some of the health issues related to homelessness and sleeping rough," she said. "I hope that we have made a difference to the homeless in Australia."

In 2009, Jean beat actor Brad Pitt to win the prestigious INDEX design awards "people's choice" category for her invention.

In 2010 she was named Queensland Young Australian of the Year.

Jean recently launched Walkabout Beds, which sells a commercial version to the public and provides both models to aid and relief organisations in other countries.

"The Street Swag is not about solving homelessness, but about keeping people alive for as long as possible," she said. "It's a great privilege to be able to help."

Schooling for change

Providing fresh food hampers to struggling families, helping girls in Sierra Leone attend school, and giving young people access to driving lessons are just some of the ideas put into action by graduates of the School of Social Entrepreneurs.

Based in Sydney and Melbourne, the school runs nine-month programs for would-be entrepreneurs, using an action learning approach.

"We don't have academics, exams or assignments," said Chief Executive Benny Callaghan, an arts graduate from ACU. "Our students come in with their ideas and the problems they're facing, and we utilise peer learning and successful social entrepreneurs who share their personal experiences with the class."

Benny said the school was built on the premise that people who experience the problems firsthand often have the best ideas on how to solve them, but can lack the skills, experience and networks to bring them to life.

"Our students range from 20 to 65 years, are both men and women, and come from a variety of backgrounds," he said.

"The common denominator is their enormous passion: they're absolutely determined to implement whatever they're trying to do."

Since it opened two years ago, the school has graduated 64 students, who through their initiatives have created 67 jobs, 296 volunteer positions, and attracted more than $3.7 million in funding.

"Every day I get to associate with some pretty inspired and remarkable individuals, and see their projects go from an idea to an initiative which is changing people's lives."

Man on a mission

To say that Peter Maher, Chief Executive Officer at St Vincent de Paul (Queensland), gives freely of his time would be an understatement.

The self-described "big picture person" had always wanted to be in a role where his actions and decisions would have a real impact.

"When I was young my father would say: if you want to change something, put yourself in a position to be able to change it," Peter said.

"Right now I can try to influence government policy to help the community. If I have a concern, I can talk to the Premier or to the Prime Minister."

Peter graduated from one of ACU's predecessor colleges, Signadou Teachers College in Canberra in 1974, and later returned to complete both a bachelor's degree and Master of Education.

The man who started out stocking shelves at Woolworths, is a 2011 Order of Australia recipient and now responsible for the overall management of Vinnies in Queensland.

"Organisations like St Vincent's are essential because it comes back to the fundamental issues of assisting people in need, and we assist anyone in need regardless of race, creed or religion," Peter said. "We don't just give a hand out, we give a hand up… We want to identify what caused their situation and try to change it in the long term."

Aiding Pakistan

Between running her own practice, working at a prison, and volunteering with the Australian Red Cross, clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Sarah Miller doesn't have a whole lot of leisure time on her hands.

As the Senior Psychologist at Port Phillip Prison in Melbourne's outer suburbs, the 36-year-old supervises a team of 11 psychologists, social workers and program delivery staff.

"We provide the prisoners with a confidential outlet to assist in managing their psychological issues and facilitate group programs to address offending behaviour," she said. "Around the prison we've somehow come to be known as the Care Bears."

While busy working at the prison and managing her own practice, Sarah, who completed a Doctor of Psychology at ACU's Melbourne Campus, said she was still thinking of other ways in which she could contribute to the humanitarian aid sector.

In 2010 she was chosen as one of the few Australian psychologists on the Red Cross delegation list for deployment to natural disaster or conflict zones. Later that year she joined the emergency response team in Pakistan, after the worst floods in the country's history.

"It was my role to provide psychological first aid and counselling to help people come to terms with their loss and prevent future, more permanent traumatic effects," she said.

Before leaving Pakistan, Sarah and her teammates trained up a group of local medical professionals so they could continue their work.

"It's particularly satisfying to know that you have made a difference, by empowering people and building their capacity to help themselves in the future," she said.

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