Zac* is 12-years-old and, along with his older brother, cares for his Mum when she goes through bouts of depression.
Before Zac joined CareSouth’s Aunties and Uncles program his life revolved around school, video games and helping his Mum get well.
Then Zac met volunteer mentors Kristy and Tony Smith and their three children Jed, Erin and Ruby, and a whole new world opened up for him. Aunties and Uncles - part of CareSouth’s Everyday Champions - was one of the organisation’s first support programs since its inception 25 years ago. Aunties and Uncles is an early intervention strategy for young people whose families are struggling. The program matches the young person with carefully selected and trained volunteer mentors who engage in everyday activities like fishing, bike riding, family picnics, weekend sport or simply cooking a meal together.
Zac readily admits that Aunties and Uncles has changed his life in big ways through small things, like eating family meals together, going for bike rides, swimming and shooting hoops.
“CareSouth thank you so much because you guys are just awesome, you guys pretty much changed my life in the best of ways so I dearly appreciate it, thank you,” he said. “It (Aunties and Uncles) changed how I feel about things.”
Kristy became a volunteer mentor in the program because of her own difficult childhood.
“Aunties and Uncles has definitely helped me be able to give back,” said Kristy. “From my background as a child I feel like I really needed a program like this growing up so that’s inspired me to get our family involved.”
“We felt we had so much to give to a child whose family might be struggling and need extra support. We just include him as one of our children. It’s definitely helped our family realise that not everyone is as lucky as we are and it’s definitely helped (Zac) by having that stimulation and someone to talk to.”
Zac admits that life gets difficult when his Mum is unwell and he often escapes into a world of video games to cope.
“Sometimes Mum just needs some time alone so she can get better. Recently Mum has been a bit stressed, our dog died. So I’ve been supporting her as best I can,” he said, showing maturity beyond his years.
The program has also helped Zac with his transition to high school this year, often a tricky period for young people, let alone those who are already vulnerable. Zac suffered from bullying while at primary school and the Smiths have worked with him to build his resilience, confidence and self-esteem.
Kristy says: “When he first came to us he wouldn’t try anything. He would get frustrated bike riding and throw the bike and say I can’t do this. But with Tony’s encouragement he tackles the tough tracks and now he always wants to jump on the bike and go for a ride. They go for hours. Now he has that confidence to try new things.
“We wanted to give him that confidence for high school so that he had those shared experiences to talk to the other kids about and be included, and he could do those things with his friends because he knew how to do them.”
Zac admits that persistent bullying made school tough.
“There were a few mean people in primary school but I’ve got over it and learned to shove it all off,” said Zac matter-of-factly. “I haven’t met any people in high school that have been disrespectful to me. I’m lucky enough to have lots of friendships with other kids from CareSouth.”
Zac agrees that Aunties and Uncles has helped him scale new heights - literally and figuratively. The youngster recently climbed Sublime Point with a group of teen boys and their caseworkers from across CareSouth’s programs.
“I wouldn’t have had enough courage to do that before,” said Zac. “But Kristy and Tony and CareSouth have helped me build up my courage, so that’s really cool, they’ve really helped me out.”
And that is what Everyday Champions is all about, helping vulnerable kids get back on the bike and stay on track. Next on the list of adventures is surfing!
But it is the small, everyday moments, like sitting around the dinner table with the Smiths that Zac cherishes the most.
“The most enjoyable thing is when we have dinner and dessert, when we talk and get to know each other more,” said Zac. “It feels good to know more people and to know what they’re like and what they talk about. Tony taught me how to play the drums, so that will help me in music class. Jed has taught me the guitar. Erin and Ruby have taught me how to play basketball a bit better. With Kristy I’ve made one or two surprise desserts for the kids and Tony.”
It’s those everyday interactions that have left an indelible mark on Zac.
“It’s a really good feeling to know them and hang out with them,” said Zac. “It’s pretty much a win-win situation.”
*Name has been changed