Mary-Anne is the leader of the Wednesday playgroup and has volunteered at St Bakhita's since 2009. She has loved getting to know the kids and their Mums and is always impressed by the girls' intricate braids and how committed the mothers are to their learning.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I went to Loreto Kirribilli. I then studied Arts and Law at uni and worked for several years for different Ministers in the State Government.
How did you find out about St Bakhita’s?
I saw a notice in one of my children’s school newsletters.
When did you start volunteering at the centre?
'We could always do with more help so that we can play with the children and read to them more. The kids love to be read to.'
What do you do at the centre?
I started out helping in the playgroup on a Wednesday and am now leading that group. So I’m responsible for the rosters, making sure we have enough volunteers and that people can come.
What were your initial impressions?
It was a bigger place than I expected. There were lots of volunteers and lots of kids.
Did anything surprise you in the beginning?
Not really. When people ask me what the Sudanese parents are like I say they are just like us. You get the Mums who help, the Mums who are in good spirits and happy, the ones who don’t look so happy and the ones who run late every week. It is just like any of us going to our children’s schools.
And the thing is the ladies probably have a good reason to be late and a good reason for sometimes not having a bright happy smile. What keeps surprising me is how good humoured, grateful and gracious they are, even when they are going through traumas in their personal life and with relations back home. They somehow manage to keep up this happy, positive, relaxed demeanour.
Tell me a little about the kids. What are they like?
They are very cute. They get on pretty well with each other because quite a few are related and see each other on weekends. Again, they are like kids you’d see in the local kindergarten up the street. There are kids that are shy, chatty and ones that are full of confidence.
Whenever I go into the playgroup, I’m always struck by how beautifully dressed the children are…
They turn up looking very, very smart and I feel bad when they go home with texta or play dough or sand on them. Not only are they beautifully dressed but their hair is amazing; these complicated braids and plaits that would have taken so long to do. They look a picture.
What sort of activities do the children enjoy?
We have a big sandpit which some of the parents don’t really like because sand gets into the kids’ hair and is hard to get out. But Sister Maria was adamant that they had to have a sandpit because that is what we do in Australia. The children love the sandpit. They do have a lot of fun in there. One of the volunteers is also bringing play dough at the moment which they love.
Do you run any kind of preschool program to prepare the older ones for school?
Yes, we do. We have a couple of volunteers who come on a Wednesday, Deb and Marie who are preschool teachers and take up to ten children aged three and four into the preschool room.
One of the little boys who has been coming here for years recently started school. His teacher asked his Mum the other day where he had learnt to speak and read and write so well. She replied, 'It was the teachers at St Bakhita’s'. And then she explained all about the centre.
So Deb and Marie do a great job with these groups. They have turned one of the rooms here into a proper preschool room and they have lots of pictures and charts on the wall. They have special themes every week, special songs they sing and special books. They are very well organised.
How much time do the preschoolers spend in there?
Well, we are here from 10am to 12.30pm and they are in there for most of the time. They come out for morning tea at about 11am. The volunteers bring sandwiches and fruit and the preschoolers come out and have something to eat and a play and then they are taken back in. Sr Maria was very keen on starting this program so that the kids would be ready for school.
How do you go about organising the volunteers?
We have a good group of volunteers thanks to notices in school newsletters and church bulletins. Some volunteers have got their friends involved and others have brought their teenagers from time to time. Both my children have helped out over the years and now my daughter arranges her uni and work commitments so that she can come every Wednesday.
I put out a roster at the beginning of each term. Most people come every two weeks but there are a few of us that come every week which is great because then you have a solid core group of about four plus our two preschool teachers. We have been lucky this term because everyone has been consistent. It is harder in winter because people get colds or their children get colds.
What does a typical morning look like?
I get there at about 9.30am and the Mums and other volunteers come in after that. We set up. We have a shed now for the toys and a mat for the little ones. We bring out chairs and tables for them to draw on, use play dough and have morning tea at. We get puzzles from the preschool room. We open up the sandpit; we have lots of sandpit toys that they love. We get out the trucks and cars that they ride around on.
People have been very generous with toys, even people passing by on the street. The kindergarten from down the road has come by a couple of times and brought toys to the Sudanese children.
How many children and volunteers do you have each week?
We have had 28 children coming regularly this term and eight volunteers including our two preschool teachers. They go into the preschool with up to ten children. It sounds like a lot but we could always do with more help so that we can play with the children and read to them more. The kids love to be read to. And Anna is such a wonderful help. If we get really busy, she will come in and look after a crying baby for us.
Do you ever get attached to some of the kids?
Yes, I do and then they get swooped off into the preschool when they are three or four. And we are caring for the fourth baby from some families now and the mothers still look so young.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working at the centre?
It is nice to be able to give a little bit. You look around and see so many wonderful people helping the ladies with their bills, their legal problems or their medical problems. But if the playgroup wasn’t there, the Mums wouldn’t be able to learn English or go to the other classes.
Getting to know the Sudanese families is very rewarding. Sadly, a few of them have moved down to Melbourne. I miss those families because I’ve seen several of their children go through. There was a lovely lady called Nashern. She was always so helpful and would tell me about life in South Sudan. One day, she sat down with me and explained how she used to make little figures out of sand when she was a girl. But you don’t always get time to chat to the Mums because they are usually rushing off to class and there are lots of children running around.
The Mums are very generous and show their appreciation at the end of each year by preparing a big Sudanese lunch for all the volunteers. One year, a group of ladies made us aprons in an African fabric which we all loved. The singing at the December Graduation ceremony is always so beautiful. The ladies perform an extremely moving Thank You song in Dinka and the kids sing Christmas Carols in English; so it’s quite a special mix of old and new.
What is the most challenging aspect of working at the centre?
I suppose being responsible for all the kids, keeping them safe, giving them morning tea.
What have you learnt over the eight years that you have been volunteering?
I have just learnt how many generous people there are; other volunteers who give their time and the Sudanese people themselves. And where else would I have gotten to know people from Sudan?
What are your hopes for the Sudanese community in Sydney?
I just hope that they are happy and that they feel accepted here.
What would you say to those considering volunteering?
I would say 'Go for it'. It is so lovely playing with the children and they are great fun. It is wonderful to meet the Mums. They make such a huge effort to get here; they have to put the kids in the car and drive half an hour to an hour to get here. Others come by train and until recently Flemington station didn’t have a lift and so they had to go up and down all those stairs with a pram.
They are just desperate to learn English and get ahead. And it is so good for the kids to see their mothers working so hard to learn.