Leonie and Luke* have been linked through CareSouth’s Aunties & Uncles program for just over two years. In that time the pair have forged a strong connection, but it took some time and some groundwork.

Leonie became an Aunties & Uncles carer after volunteering in an orphanage in Nepal several years ago. The electrician and TAFE teacher found the volunteer work incredibly fulfilling and began looking at ways to give back at home.

“My experience in Nepal made me think of kids here who need help,” said Leonie. “That inspired me to join a volunteer program when I came back, so I started researching the options and decided on Aunties & Uncles.”

Leonie was matched with Luke, who was 12 at the time of the link. Luke has an older sister whom he adores but she lives interstate. Leonie became a sister figure for the youngster, and while it took some time for the pair to find their equilibrium, once some ground rules were established they quickly bonded. 

“At first Luke didn’t really want to let me in,” said Leonie. “It was a bit like ‘this lady picks me up and we go places and hang out, but I don’t really want to talk to her’,” laughed Leonie. “Then it changed to ‘this lady will take me out all the time, I’ll just call her every second day when I’m bored and get her to take me places and do stuff’.”

Leonie struggled to find the time in her busy schedule and found it quite overwhelming. However she was reluctant to say no to Luke, for fear of letting him down. But she soon realised that Luke needed to understand boundaries and have some routines and structure in place to help him prepare for his transition to high school the following year.

“Luke likes to be in control of what we are doing,” said Leonie. “At the beginning of our link Luke wanted to do everything his way. So I had to set boundaries and rules, without being a party pooper, so that he knew that he couldn’t have it all his way all of the time.

“At home he can stay up as late as he wants and watch whatever he wants. When we are at my house bedtime is 10pm and we have to both agree on what we watch because we’re watching it together. Sometimes he thinks I’m a party pooper but by setting boundaries early in our link Luke understood that he can’t always be in control and that relationships are a two-way street built on trust and compromise.”

Support from Aunties & Uncles coordinators and ongoing training helped Leonie recognise early on the challenges many young people in the program have faced and the long-lasting impact this can have on their lives. But with the right tools, support and matching, a successful Aunties & Uncles link can make a huge difference to both the lives of a child and a carer.

“When I started my link with Luke he was in primary school and since then he has transitioned to high school so I’ve seen huge changes in him,” said Leonie. “I like to think that I’ve had a positive impact. I’m probably a bit stricter than what he is used to. I set some fairly firm boundaries around manners, morals, homework and things like that.

“Now when he comes over for a sleepover he asks if he can bring his homework so I can help him. That would never have happened before, it would be me pushing him to do his homework. A few weeks ago he had a sleepover and spent Friday night writing a 400 word essay about someone who has faced adversity. Because I’m a teacher at TAFE he knows I’m more than happy to support him with that. Luke chose to write about his sister and it was very personal and very sad but I feel privileged he asked me to help him with it.”

Leonie has also helped to broaden Luke’s view of the world, given him opportunities to experience things he might not have otherwise, and encouraged him to step out of his comfort zone and try new things.

 “One of our things would be having dinner together every week and Luke would get to pick what we ate, and it would be something different that he had never had before. It’s giving him exposure to different things that he normally wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do.”

One of the highlights of the link for Leonie and Luke was a trip to Jamberoo Recreation Park. A friend won a pass and gave it to Leonie so she could share an experience with Luke that many of us take for granted.

“For Luke he thought it was the best day ever, he loved it,” said Leonie.

Fast forward two and a half years since the pair first met and Luke has grown into a mature, polite but cheeky young man. He has found a solid friendship group, plays volleyball at school and engages in after school activities. Leonie now feels like the focus is on spending quality time together rather than quantity.

“Now he tells me everything,” said Leonie. “We don’t see each other as much but he will call me when he wants to chat and he tells me everything about school and his family. We are part of each other’s lives now.

Luke agrees.

“I love being able to connect to other kids (in the program) and I really enjoy Leonie’s company,” said Luke. “She is a really great person to me, she tries to help me in any way possible and I appreciate her.”

Leonie’s relationship with Luke also extends to his family.

“I have a very good relationship with Luke’s family,” said Leonie. “Every time I pick Luke up or drop him off I go inside and have a chat to his family. They send me birthday cards and give me Christmas presents.”

Luke’s Dad can also see the positive impacts the program and his son’s link with Leonie has had saying: “It’s helped him by bringing him out of his shell, enabling him to socialise better with other people and to also help him forget about things that can upset him.”

When asked how Aunties & Uncles has changed Leonie’s life she said: “I have an extra person who’s part of my life now. All of my friends and family know about Luke, everyone regularly asks me about him and they all check in to see how he is going. It’s almost like I have a child they will check up on when they talk to me. It has definitely changed my life for the better.

“I would recommend the Aunties & Uncles program to anyone who is thinking about volunteering,” said Leonie. “Even if you think you don’t have enough to offer, you definitely do because it doesn’t have to be big things.

“Some of these kids just need someone to spend time with or someone to talk to. It doesn’t have to be a huge outlay of time or money, you don’t have to buy them things or take them places, just giving them a little bit of time is enough. I joined Aunties & Uncles because I just wanted to help someone and I feel like I am doing that.”

*name changed