“When I first went, my reading was kind of bad. My vocabulary wasn’t very big, but the volunteers really helped me to understand words and feel more confident.”
“It made me feel so happy,” says Jamal. “There was a lot of clapping. I felt amazing. It made me want to do more. Perform more.”
Jamal* attributes his growing resilience to taking part in one of the education programs run by St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria (Vinnies Victoria). “Without the confidence I got from the program, I don’t think I would have been able to perform by myself. I would have wanted my teacher next to me,” he says.
“I was shy before. I liked playing guitar but I was scared and I didn't like playing in front of people because I didn’t know how they would react.”
As teachers across the state report a COVID-shaped hole in the confidence and wellbeing of students, Vinnies is providing a solution in its much-loved one-to-one literacy and education support programs. The sessions support the all-important social and emotional development of students that research shows underpin all academic development and encourages lifelong learning.
Jamal’s mother Salma* says that when online schooling began, she noticed Jamal barely spoke during lessons.
“He wouldn’t say much at all. He was shy, missing his friends and missing his dad,” she says.
Jamal was only five when his father died after a short illness and he became very sad and withdrawn. “But now his communication has really improved. I see him giggling and talking loudly, and I think those are the improvements he got from the Vinnies’ reading program,” says Salma.
Across the state, Vinnies Victoria has eight dedicated programs that help students really shine. The Dandenong program, which Jamal attends in outer Melbourne, focuses on working with students from grade 2-12. It runs each Saturday morning in the school term.
The free programs provide professionally trained volunteers, educational materials and books, incursions and hands-on learning activities to create a fun and safe learning space.
Vinnies believes that access to education is the most empowering pathway out of disadvantage and Salma certainly knows this is true. She grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp after her parents fled the war in South Sudan when she was three. She worked hard at her schoolwork as a teenager and was awarded a UN scholarship for higher education. It was through the UN that she immigrated to Australia in the early 2000s with her husband, where Jamal and his sister were born.
Jamal is also making the most of the opportunities the Vinnies’ education program is providing. “My favourite things are meeting new people, playing basketball and the fact that my reading is getting better.
“When I first went, my reading was kind of bad. My vocabulary wasn’t very big, but the volunteers really helped me to understand words and feel more confident.
“They encouraged me to read with other people in the group, and read with my friends. We also do lots of science experiments, solve maths problems and play board games.
“All the volunteers are amazing, respectful and fun. At the end of a session, I feel happy and energetic. And I enjoy reading more now, too. I can read chapter books,” he says.
Last academic year, 4,951 learning hours were provided to 3,241 students. One of our coordinators, and former high school teacher Suzi Maxwell-Wright, describes how important early intervention is for all children. “By the time students get to high school, the ones who haven't been adequately supported will fall through the cracks very quickly.
“So educational foundations of social, emotional and academic literacy really need to be built at a young age when children are developing skills, confidence, the ability to form social connections and hopefully a desire to learn. Promoting this love of learning is exactly what our education programs do.”
Salma, who trained as a teacher but now works in health, found the Vinnies program through the children’s school. She says both her children love the program. “The volunteers are lovely and kind. They do an amazing job! You see the joy in my children’s faces when they come home. Jamal’s father would be so proud of how far he has come. He was always encouraging him to do his best,” she says.
The last word belongs to the confident conversationalist Jamal.
“I want to thank the St Vincent de Paul Society volunteers for everything they do. My teachers at school say I’m improving fast and to keep it up. That makes me feel good. And makes me want to keep doing more.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.