A former teacher and flight attendant, Deb set up a preschool program at St Bakhita's which has made a huge difference to the school readiness of the children who attend the centre. A volunteer since 2010, she loves spending time with the kids and their Mums.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I studied primary teaching but when I finished there were not a lot of jobs around. I ended up flying with Qantas for twenty years. I left after I had my third child. In recent years, I have worked at a preschool in Rose Bay and I do a lot of volunteer work not only at St Bakhita’s but also to support the Indigenous students at my son’s school.
When did you first start going to St Bakhita Centre?
About 2010. I saw a notice in the Riverview newsletter and contacted Sister Maria.
'We are really seeing the benefits of the mothers’ education because the kids have a much better understanding of numbers, letters and nursery rhymes when they start preschool than they did before.'
What was it like then?
It was very different. We didn’t have the artificial grass so the play area used to turn to mud when it rained. And we didn’t have the sandpit. Somebody very kindly donated the artificial grass which made a big difference to the place.
Did you start out in the playgroup?
Yes. I worked in the playgroup for the first eighteen months to two years. At that stage, there was no area set aside for the preschoolers.
What were your initial impressions of the centre?
In those days, we were still setting up systems that we take for granted now. Things like using name tags and sorting out the ages of the children. We were more limited in terms of resources and space.
What else has changed?
When I look back, a big difference is how much better the kids’ English language skills are now. The families have been here longer and the kids hear more English at home especially from older siblings.
They used to be a little scared of us, a bit frightened. Now when they come, they don’t cry as much or get upset. They have gotten to know us and are very affectionate. They settle quickly. There has been a big change with the families overall: they just seem more comfortable with all of us.
How did you get involved with the preschool program?
Sister Maria wanted to set up a preschool program for the children aged three to five so that they would be better prepared for school. She wanted them to have an understanding of what going to school meant, that preschool awareness which would help them make the transition to school.
How did you go about setting up the preschool room?
We didn’t have any resources so I started buying things: number charts, textas, coloured pencils, paper, glue, glitter. All the things that help young children learn. We just started building up slowly and putting different things in. Then Marie came. She is an ex-teacher and brings lots of skills and experience to the centre. So we painted the little room ourselves and got in tables and chairs, bookcases and a mat for the children to sit on.
How many kids do you take into the preschool?
We don’t take any more than ten and our average is about six or seven.
Are the children excited to go into preschool?
Yes. They start in the play area. They have a play around and then we call them and they run to the gate. They can’t wait to go up. We have about 45 minutes with them and then it is morning tea. They have another play and then they come back in for another 45 minutes. It is not a long period of time but it is enough to get them into a really good routine.
Do the little ones ever want to come?
Some of the younger ones want to go with you because their sister or friend is going. But we concentrate on making it just for the specific age group otherwise there is too much disruption. There will be a time when the little ones come to the group.
So what does a typical morning look like?
They come into the classroom and we say 'Good Morning' to each other. We start by counting the number of children in the class and each child gets a turn to do this. We go through the days of the week which are up on the board.
Then we do our theme for the week. We have different themes: family, First Day at school, Australia, Easter, the classic book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar which we are doing now. We normally read a story that relates to the theme and do a lot of activities around it with numbers, letters and art.
We do much the same program every year but I vary it a little and include some different things. One year, I got the zoo to come out with some animals. The kids absolutely loved it. We had a petting zoo come here another time.
How important is it for the kids to understand what school is all about; that they need to sit still and listen?
I think those social skills are probably even more important than learning about numbers and letters. It makes a big difference if they know what they need to do, what is expected of them. That is why we teach them that when we are reading a story, they have to sit still on the mat, cross their legs and listen. We tell them that they mustn’t touch someone else or run around the classroom. All those little rules come through socialising.
And that is often the stuff we take for granted, isn’t it?
Most definitely. If the kids know these things before they go to school, then they are going to settle in more easily. And the more comfortable the kids feel, the more open they are going to be to learning. The preschool also creates a sense of belonging; you belong to that little group and you forge friendships and connections. It is a really important part of growing up.
Do you have much contact with the mothers?
They often come and have morning tea outside with us. We also get to know them because we have a number of children from the same family that come through. The Mums are so committed to their children and are a very strong influence on them. Sometimes they ask how their kids are going and what they can do to help their learning.
If there is a concern, we may raise it with them or ask Anna to do this. We try and get any concerns, we have with a child seen to quickly. They are very conscious of the need for their kids to do well and want them to be part of the pre-school group as soon as they can. The mothers sometimes come and tell us how their kids who have left are doing at school. Education is very important to them.
And I guess over the years, as the Mums are learning more and more that all flows on to the children in terms of their learning…
That is very important because you learn from your parents and family. If mothers are better educated, they are more likely to be an active part of the education process. If you know English and have a better understanding of the school system, you are more comfortable approaching teachers because it takes confidence to go into a classroom. They can go to the schools and ask questions about their children and get more support for them if they need it.
The mothers are doing this more and more just like Australian-born parents. This has been a massive change. St Bakhita’s has done so much for these families and for the women and children especially. Everything the mothers learn at St Bakhita’s, whether it is English or how to navigate Australian society, helps them and their children feel like they truly belong.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working at the centre?
It has been amazing to see the mothers and children become more and more at ease here while still maintaining their own cultural background. And we are really seeing the benefits of the mothers’ education because the kids have a much better understanding of numbers, letters and nursery rhymes when they start preschool than they did before. And it is also so lovely to see how much the kids enjoy the program.
Anna told us recently that some of the schools have contacted her to say what a difference the pre-school program has made to the kids starting school now. They are much more settled and no different to the Australian kids in terms of school readiness.
What have you learned from working at St Bakhita Centre?
I have learned how lovely the Sudanese community is and what devoted family people they are. The mothers are very kind and worry about their kids all the time. Giving their children a good start is really important to them.
What are your hopes for the Sudanese community in Sydney?
I hope that over time they become an accepted and valued part of our society.
What would you say to those considering volunteering?
I would say that it is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. You’ll get to know a wonderful culture that you would probably never have come across. And it is such a pleasure to spend time with the children and their mothers.