A former school principal, Denise has been teaching English at the centre since 2009. One of its most dedicated volunteers, Denise has been instrumental in helping the women pursue further English study and obtain vocational qualifications through TAFE's distance education arm, OTEN.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I trained as a teacher and taught in Catholic schools in the 1960s and then took time off to raise my five children before returning to teaching in the 1980s. I was Principal of Our Lady Queen of Peace School at Gladesville from 1996 to 2005.
What activities have you been involved with at the centre?
After I retired, Sister Maria asked if I would teach an English class at the centre. That was in May 2009.
'I have followed many of them from their first days when we struggled to communicate with each other. It is wonderful to see the women become confident, competent and succeed in so many ways.'
What was the set up like then?
Volunteers looked after the children while we taught English to small groups of mainly women wherever we could find a space. At times, we visited women with small children at home to teach English. The following year as the number of students increased we expanded to other spaces. Classes were held in the church hall as well as the kitchen and library of the Edmund Rice Centre. I started coming one day a week and then two days a week.
What do you remember about those early days?
I remember at the end of my first year teaching, I was asked by my class to write words like ‘thank you’ and ‘teaching’ on the whiteboard for them as they tried to write on cards. Towards the end of the lesson, one of the ladies looked up at me with a big smile and said, 'Now I can send a Christmas card to my children’s teachers and say, Thank you for teaching'.
In those early days, the ladies struggled to read anything that came home from the schools. Newsletters were impossible; they had to depend on their older children or bring them to us to read.
I used to tell them, 'If your little ones are in Kindergarten, Year One and Year Two do their homework with them. You’ll learn to spell and read along with them and they’ll enjoy reading with you'.
Now most of those women can ring the school, talk to teachers and other parents, read their newsletters and go to Parent-Teacher meetings. They feel they are part of the school community and that’s really important.
They also struggled to navigate through all the challenges of adapting to life in a new country that is so different to their own. Things like using public transport and later Opal Cards and getting a pram up and down the steps at Flemington station.
What remains difficult for them in terms of learning?
When new students come in and we ask them what they would like help with, they almost always say spelling and writing. They still struggle with word attack skills, spelling, grammar and writing. That is the area where there is the biggest gap. Despite this, they have become so much more confident with their reading and that has been great to see.
What are some of initiatives you have been involved with at the centre?
One of the most important has been the OTEN program (Open Training & Education Network is the online education arm of TAFE). In early 2010, Sr Maria thought that some of the younger women needed something more for their future. We needed to find a way for them to further their education.
So Sr Maria, some of the women and I went to TAFE Strathfield to the OTEN office. You know, the Holy Spirit works in many ways because there we met an incredible ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) teacher called Rebecca who has bent over backwards to meet the needs of the women ever since.
Rebecca enrolled many of the women into Certificate courses in English to help improve their language skills and many continue to do these courses today. Some of them have been able to move on to vocational courses such as Aged Care, Community Services and Teacher Assistance.
It has been a big struggle but they are very determined women and some have jobs now as a result. It has been a very successful partnership and it has meant a tremendous amount to the ladies.
The donation of laptops to the centre helped the students, both women and men, to do these online courses including Driver's Licence and Citizenship courses. It is really great to see some of the South Sudanese men attending to access help with their studies in English, Business Studies and even on one occasion with Fork Lift Driving.
What are some other ways that the centre has made a difference?
It has been a place where they can meet Australian-born volunteers and learn about Australian culture. If they have a problem with an electricity bill or a landlord they can ask someone for help. Anthony, in particular, has been wonderful in helping them. All the small things that we take for granted were really difficult and the centre has helped orientate them in their new life.
What about the ongoing challenges the community faces?
There are many ongoing challenges for the Sudanese community. For those living in Sydney, finding rental accommodation that is suitable and affordable is a real problem and a major challenge for most of them.
A further big challenge for the men and women is finding work to support themselves and their family.
How has volunteering at St Bakhita’s affected you personally?
It has been a pleasure to be part of the ladies’ lives, to share in their achievements, their joys and their sad times. I have so much admiration for these women who are determined to get the education they never had as children. I’m also in awe of the resilience they show in making a life for themselves and their children and their deep faith and trust in God. The women have also reached out and welcomed women from other cultures and religions to study beside them at the centre.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working at the centre?
It has been very rewarding to see the way the women have succeeded through sheer determination to become literate whilst bringing up their children and learning to navigate their way around the Australian way of life.
I have followed many of them from their first days when we struggled to communicate with each other. It has been wonderful to see the women become confident, competent and successful in so many ways.
I truly value their friendship and the fun times we share. It has been a learning experience for me too as the women share their culture, customs, food and love of singing with us.
I have been truly blessed by the opportunity to be part of the Sudanese community.