10th Anniversary Dinner the Patron’s Address

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Below is the Address by Major General the Honourable Michael Jeffery, AC, AO(Mil), CVO, MC (Retd) at the 10th Anniversary of the official launch of The School Volunteer Program Act which was held at the CIT Restaurant, Constitution Ave, Reid ON Thursday, 22 October 2015.

The dinner was attended by Minister Burch, Mr Doszpot MLA, Ms Nicolson, the President of the School Volunteer Program ACT as well as Mentors and Guests of the Program.

Thank you for your warm welcome and a special thank you to Isabella Marland and Lily Jacobs from Macquarie Primary School for treating us to their wonderful story about Blaze, the insecure firefly.

Marlena and I are delighted to participate in the celebration of this very important occasion and in so doing to recognise the fantastic effort to help and inspire the children in our primary schools by our many school volunteers over that time. Ten years ago Marlena and I saw this fledgling organisation begin its journey with 12 mentors in eight ACT schools. I was privileged at the time to launch the School Volunteer Program in the ACT in my role as Governor-General and I am very pleased to be here now to congratulate you all on jobs well done and thank you on behalf of many, many children for the mentoring and the nurturing of young minds over these years. Today there are 130 mentors in 34 schools with a further 15 mentors currently taking some time out.

This year the program excelled with various awards received and mentors acknowledged. For example:

  • In May this year, The School Volunteer Program ACT was named 2015 ACT Volunteer Team of the Year in the category Education, Science and Technology.
  • Ms Heather Girdlestone, a mentor at Neville Bonner School and a member of the SVPACT Committee, was recently named 2015 Public Education Volunteer of the Year.
  • Currently there are 15 SVPACT mentors working with students at Arawang Primary School.
  • Two members of the committee participated in the recent Australian Youth Mentoring Network Conference.

When launching the organisation ten years ago, I mentioned one of my favourite proverbs and I am delighted to see it printed on the SVPACT 10 Year Journey card given to you tonight. It is an ancient African proverb – “it takes a village to raise a child”. It is just as true today in Canberra as it was in ancient African villages. – in reality no man, woman or child can live and thrive in individual isolation. In today’s very frantic world, it is even more important to nurture our children and take time to teach not only the academic curriculum, but to assist with their social learning, give them broad experiences and guide them through the often, very complex world of the 21st Century. This is where you, as mentors, play a key role.

Through programs such as this, we are able to offer better access to opportunities for our children in their early years at school. The wonderful volunteers, and many of you are here tonight, who give their time to contribute to the ‘village nurturing’ of our children, are contributing to the well-being of not just the one or two children you might individually be mentoring, but to the greater good of the village or as we know it today, society.

With the mentoring process you are removing obstacles that often cause children to stumble and fall by the wayside of the education process. You are paving the way for children to rediscover learning and to develop, also teaching them in the process that giving to others is a good and rewarding thing to do.

Mentoring is a caring activity. It is a support process recognised across the globe by communities and societies from as early as ancient times, including in our aboriginal communities. The mentoring you provide gives an important exposure to other points of view, personalities and ways of doing things.

I admire the effectiveness of SVP’s mentors. You have retained your enthusiasm over the years and remain eager to learn and take on new challenges. You continue to show young people that they are valued, that with application they can have a bright future in whichever career they choose later in life.

Of course it can be a challenge for those volunteering their time to be a mentor and I imagine there are occasions when you have asked yourselves ‘why am I doing this?’ This is of course an entirely normal reaction but then again, I wager that most, if not all of you, have experienced an occasion like my mentor PA Mrs Wendy Button, where one of her mentees came running up in Coles with their Mum or Dad to thank her for what she had done. You are helping to build resilience and self-reliance in your charges as well as nurturing a love of learning.

Research from the US and supported by the WA program indicates that the positive effects of a school mentoring program reach far into the community. Young people’s school attendance and grades are improved, their self-esteem is improved and the families report better relationships and less drug and alcohol abuse.

Instead of complaining about what is wrong with the ‘young people of today’, you as mentors are demonstrating that these young people can be a wonderful asset for our country.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me highlight a few numbers and interesting snippets about this program.

  • Volunteer mentors and committee members have contributed over 7,000 hours in 2014 and around 40,000 hours over the last 10 years.
  • We have around 300 students participating in the program each week.
  • Mentors use literacy, numeracy, history, Meccano, and handicrafts to build relationships with their students, working on a one to one basis in school during school hours. Mentors are role models and take a genuine interest in their charges.
  • Meccano is an interesting addition to the program. Many of us would have fond memories of playing with Meccano, building amazing things and testing our design and construction abilities. Now we have 60 volunteers using Meccano regularly in their mentoring of their students.
  • Over the 10 years there have been many notable contributions from the senior members of our community. Probably the most notable were Mr Keith Guilliard who retired from mentoring at Latham Primary school at the age of 97 years and Ms Alison Hutchinson who retired at 94 from Red Hill Primary School. One mentor is in his fourteenth year of mentoring in ACT schools.
  • The average age of mentors has remained stable at around 60 years and the ratio of women to men has also been steady at 55:45. In recent years there has been an influx of younger people and those born overseas to join the mentoring team.
  • Ms Deborah Packer has conducted many pro bono reading and spelling workshops over the past 7 years and her contribution to SVPACT has been invaluable. She was a Children’s Week Awardee in 2012, one of several won by SVPACT, individual SVPACT mentors and committee members over the 10 years.

All our mentors, irrespective of age, are helping our society by setting standards, being role models and encouraging children, to learn by example.

In January this year an Italian online newspaper called Fanpage created a video showing how children respond to violence against women. You may have already seen this video; if not it is well worth viewing on You Tube. It was really looking at the early behaviour of children, in this case to do with violence towards women, noting that by the time children are 12 or 13 and in high school, many of their behaviour patterns are well established and often their attitudes towards women are already formed. This is where the mentor can play such a critical role through example and by demonstrating the fundamentals of good behaviour and mutual respect. We need to concentrate our efforts on very young children, of primary school age, if we are going to have a long standing impact on behaviour and attitudes to learning.
Mentoring is of course not only useful for our young children, but should continue in later life. Indeed, these days there is quite an industry of ‘Life Coaches’ and ‘Career Mentors’ who aim to deliver the type of guidance you provide in schools to people in workplaces or general life situations.

In the military, where I have spent a large part of my life, mentors are key to the successful running and operational effectiveness of a unit. This is generally provided through the senior soldier, NCO and officer ranks structure

One area of mentoring/teaching that I would like to see incorporated if possible into your ACT program is the establishment of a vegetable garden in every primary and junior high school in the country. Why do I say this? It is really about food security and the importance of looking after our soil if the planet is to deal satisfactorily with climate variations, increasing populations and the degradation of landscapes here in Australia and across the globe.

Globally, soils are already degraded and under producing, yet the world has to almost double its food production by 2050 to meet a projected population increase from 7 to 10 billion. It has to do this when the planet is losing around 1% of its agricultural land annually through urbanisation, desertification and so on; where the essential irrigation water for the main food bowls of China, India, Africa, the Middle East and even California are rapidly running out due to irreplaceable aquifer depletion; where almost every major river in developing countries is heavily polluted (particularly in China); where damming headwaters by some countries is reducing flows to other countries and where poor soil management is leading to aridification and desertification.

The potential for huge social unrest is very high and will be exacerbated by the impact of climate variability (longer droughts, hotter and more frequent wild fires, more severe flooding, cyclones and seal level rises). In this country there are considerable landscape management problems. Around 60% of the Australian arable land is degraded in some way as a result of increased salinity, acidity, wind and soil erosion, climate variability, soil carbon loss, over use of pesticides, overstocking and so on.

Ladies and Gentlemen, our soil, water and vegetation are vital national assets and we need to ensure our children are fully aware of this and of how important looking after each is for their future well-being They need to understand what bits and pieces go into forming good healthy soil and what they can do to play a part in protecting that soil and thereby producing more nutritious and healthier food.

Suffice to say that as part of our very successful school volunteering program, I would be delighted to see the incorporation of a school garden as part of the program in every ACT school. I am aware that there are schools in the ACT with good and productive gardens and with enthusiastic teachers leading the way. However, many volunteers have green thumbs and have very beautiful and productive suburban gardens. Such people would be great garden mentors, noting that in the school garden you can also teach science, maths, mining, poetry, literature and art.

School gardens can be, and in many cases are already proving to be the beginning of great things. Stephanie Alexander with her 800 Victorian school gardens is clearly demonstrating this.

But back to the SVP itself.

These programs never operate without substantial effort and funding. Major financial support comes from the Teachers Mutual Bank, ably managed in the Canberra Area Manager by Mr Kevin King who is here tonight and the Education and Training Directorate of the ACT.

As with many community programs, Rotary is never far away and in this case, our thanks go to the Belconnen and Weston Creek Rotary Clubs who have been providing ongoing support – the President of the Weston Creek Rotary Club, Mr Graham Giles, is here tonight.

Finally, could I again thank our mentors, volunteers and supporters who give so much time and energy to the School Volunteer Program ACT.

Happy 10th Anniversary SVP ACT – congratulations on an excellent program.

May the next ten years be even more successful.

Thank you.

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