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‘Smarties’ get a helping hand at Wesley Mission Brisbane

The Smart group at work, Kate and Jess back left
When twins Kate and Jess Stewart first came to Wesley Mission Brisbane at age 14, both were suffering extreme anxiety and as a result were unable to speak.

Today the girls are confident public speakers, have control of their anxiety and are looking forward to commencing a Bachelor of Psychology at University.

During high school, severe bullying had pushed the girls, who suffered from selective mutism, to the point where they could not cope in typical social situations and had dropped out of school.

Selective mutism is a social anxiety disorder in which a person who is normally capable of speech is unable to speak in particular situations, or to specific people. It ranges in presentation from a reluctance to speak in certain situations to physical and social unresponsiveness.The girls were diagnosed with selective mutism early in life and it is a condition that runs in their family.

Kate and Jess were recommended Smart, a Wesley Mission Brisbane program for young people aged between 13 and 19 who have disengaged from mainstream education for a variety of reasons, mainly bullying, to get their lives back on track.

Fiona Ware is Smart Program Coordinator and calls the students her ‘smarties’. She explained that Smart is an alternative and flexible education program that aims to inspire students back into learning by finding strategies to work around individual’s conditions. Each student receives accreditation through Metropolitan TAFE for their work through Smart and for many, it is the first time they have received a certificate of achievement.

Fiona has known Kate and Jess for four years since they first came to the program in 2004 and explained they didn’t speak at all when she first met them. “It is interesting trying to connect with people who don’t speak”, she said.

Fiona slowly introduced the girls back into learning with year 9 maths and English and also arranged for a therapist, Manon Sheridan, to provide
counselling. Fiona arranged access to funding for the four years of therapy through the Youth at Risk Alliance Complex Needs Assistance Program, a BAYS initiative that involves a panel of experts that provides extra support, advice or funding for programs such as Smart.

Kate explained that although she and Jess were extremely nervous about beginning at Smart, they soon felt welcome.

“Starting Smart was very difficult for us as it was a new experience. There were new people and it was very different to going to school, but soon after starting we felt comfortable in the environment and we felt very welcome,” she explained.

“We found that everyone was friendly and accepted us for who we were.”

As well as studying maths and English, the Smart students also complete two major projects each year and are involved in the planning, development and implementation of each project. The project aims to teach the students about life skills, budgeting and what their strengths are.

Kate and Jess worked on ‘Walk in my Shoes’, a documentary made by the students that analyses bullying.

“Making ‘Walk in my Shoes’ helped us a lot with our experience of being bullied,” Jess explained.

“It helped us to understand that at one stage in their life everyone gets bullied, and that most of the time people bully because there is something going on in their lives. Making ‘Walk in my Shoes’ helped us to put the bullying in the past and get on with our lives.”

Kate and Jess studied Tertiary Preparation at TAFE this year and will graduate from the course in three weeks, before going on to study Psychology in 2009.

The sisters recently spoke about their experience in front of over 100 people at the Wesley Mission Brisbane Annual General Meeting. They credited Smart and working with their therapist for their growth.

“Without Manon’s help we would not be able to be here today telling you about our time at Smart,” they explained.

“Before and even while we were at Smart we weren’t able to talk in public, not even in a small group. Now we are able to talk to people we don’t know and we have given presentations in front of our classes at TAFE.”

Fiona is thrilled with the progress Kate and Jess have made and said she was very emotional listening to her ‘smarties’ speak publicly with confidence.

“We’ve come a very long way together and I’m very proud of them,” she said.
“Because of Smart, two people now have a fulfilling life and are able to contribute to society.”

Kate and Jess agreed.

“Without the help of everyone at Smart we are sure our lives would be very different to what they are now. We are very glad to have had the opportunity to go to Smart to make more out of our lives.”

Photo : The Smart group at work, Kate and Jess back left