Everyone Deserves A Second Chance
5 September 2016 at 10:23 am
Rachel Porter is an author and general manager of Whitelion, a charity supporting thousands of vulnerable young people across Australia. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Porter has been involved in the Not for Profit sector for more than 20 years, working with various children’s causes, including World Reconciliation Day events with Nelson Mandela.
She has been recognised for her charity work as a finalist in the 2009 Australian of the Year awards and receiving the Patch Adams Humanitarian of the Year award in 1999.
Her forthcoming book, Doin’ Time, Porter, questions what happens when teens get into trouble with the law and she shares personal stories of nine Australian men from troubled backgrounds who got offered a second chance – and grabbed it.
Facing up to their past, they’ve overcome the odds to become valued members of the community, with many of them now working with vulnerable young people as mentors, welfare officers, motivational speakers and community leaders.
Doin’ Time also includes first person accounts from those who work with troubled youths, who analyse the impact drugs and abuse have had on the lives of children and discuss the programs that are working to make them healthy and reconnected to the community.
In this week’s Changemaker Porter talks about her lifelong passion for charity work, why you shouldn’t let a snap judgement of someone cloud your view to the real circumstances of their life and why you should always give people a second chance.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
I was originally drawn to the Not for Profit sector by the late Jeff Crouch, the former well respected VFL umpire. At the time Jeff was the director of the Royal Children’s Hospital [Good Friday] appeal and I volunteered to help them. Jeff saw something in me and mentored me into the world of Not for Profit. He said he felt I would stay involved in charity work and that it would become a lifelong passion, which is what happened, as apart from my role at Whitelion I’ve been very privileged to work on programs for the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies and I also treasure the years I managed the World Reconciliation events with the late Nelson Mandela.
What does a typical day for you involve as general manager of Whitelion?
A typical day gee, I don’t know whether I have ever had one of those! As general manager I am across the day-to-day activities and operations of the charity and the big-picture, high-level vision and strategy so each day is very busy and intense. They are long days and can consist of meetings with supporters, strategy meetings, responding to emails, overseeing and supporting staff, attending events, writing reports for the board each month, engaging with government, creating powerpoint presentations, speaking engagements, PR activities, the list is long but I’ve covered a little of it. I work very closely with HR at Whitelion as the people we employ and the volunteers who give their time to the charity are the heart and soul of the organisation.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
I like working closely with the staff I have employed in the Partnerships and Communications Department, accounts, administration and management – they are an amazing collection of talented individuals. One of the team, Debbie Chalmers, is known as “the rock”. Debbie has been working with me for over 20 years, a lot of people seem rather surprised that two women can work closely together for over 20 years without ever having an argument!
The current CEO of Whitelion has commented that it is the best ensemble of skilled and passionate staff members at Whitelion that he has ever seen in his 17 years there. I have a knack for attracting good people and I hope that never changes as our success at Whitelion and ability to help so many young people isn’t achieved in isolation, it’s a team effort. Our outreach workers and program staff are exceptional people whom I have a great admiration for including Di and Anthony who are out five nights a week on our Chatterbox bus tirelessly working with young people on the streets providing material aid and ongoing support. I believe in the programs Whitelion provides as I know they can change a young person’s life.
What are your current priorities?
The priorities at the moment for Whitelion are concise branding and messages, so the public can understand and get behind the valuable work the charity does, increasing our funding streams and opportunities so we can roll out more programs and continue to support those programs we currently provide. Personally my goals include my family commitments as my highest priority, to continue my charity work helping children who are in circumstances that place them at risk and to continue writing my books.
How did Doin’ Time come about?
Due to my role at Whitelion I came into contact with former offenders, I was hearing their stories repeated over and over. I saw how many had, against all odds, changed their lives but I also saw many others still struggling. I felt they needed a voice, they needed to feel valued and supported. I visited young offenders on Christmas Day in the juvenile detention centre and delivered presents to them. My heart went out to these young people, as young as 10 years of age, who were incarcerated. For many of these young people, myself and other volunteers were the only visitors they had on Christmas Day. Their faces, their stories and their vulnerability stayed with me and I felt a burning desire to help them. I started scribbling on a napkin one day in a local café and I wrote the contents page for the book. Then it just grew from there over a two-year period. While I held down my full-time job I spent many nights and weekends working on Doin’ Time.
What do you want people to take from the stories?
I hope the book starts a robust conversation in homes, offices, schools, in the media and in government. I hope it openly challenges the community to think differently and to make an active change as currently much of society is desensitised to the past trauma of the person perpetrating the crime and far more comfortable to focus on how they should be punished. One common theme was very evident throughout the stories and many interviews I conducted that in their youth the men were searching for a sense of community, a stable environment and a sense of belonging. They wanted to feel loved, worthy and that they mattered in the world. One person taking the time to care about them and make them feel worthy and loved can totally change a young person’s pathway and potentially turn their life around.
You say in the prologue of the book, often the perception we have about someone is far removed from the person’s true circumstances. What can we do as a society to address this?
I reflect on my own life and what I have witnessed and I’ve experienced bullies in the workplace and I have seen how quickly people blindly follow a bully, someone with their own agenda and perhaps a narcissistic personality. The followers can become a lynch mob very quickly without any insight or understanding into that person’s life and real circumstances. They can at times set the victim up and find a way to isolate them and put a spin on even the most normal of circumstances and then they confuse people and it becomes murky.
Bullying is just one example I have witnessed where even if they have a support system around them the victim, through no fault of their own, can still feel isolated, lose hope and direction and feel a lack of self-esteem and sense of purpose. If you take that a step further into the lives of these nine men in the book and all the hundreds out there just like them with the lack of support, connection to the community and lack of self-esteem then you can end up with an extremely vulnerable and isolated human being who is very much at risk.
We need to think about why the man curled up on the ground in the middle of winter with little more than the clothes on his back and sheets of newspaper for bedding got to that place in his life. What is his background, how can we support him or the many young people that I am told specifically offend at Christmas time so they can spend Christmas Day in a safe place with food in their belly and a roof over their heads. That safe place is a juvenile detention centre, so how unsafe and desperate must these young people feel?
Instead of following the tribe when they are gathering together to judge one alone, vulnerable person, step aside and say, “No, I am not going to be a part of it.” It’s ok to be unpopular and not follow the crowd. It’s ok to stand up and not close your eyes and be desensitised and instead reach out to a person who is struggling, alone and disconnected. Ask. “How are you travelling?” Ask “Are you ok?” Don’t judge someone based on what the next person says or thinks as they can be very wrong in their often misguided impressions. We need to change as a society, one person at a time, to start to eradicate the judgement and persecution. Imagine if every week each of us stopped to ask “Are you ok?” to someone outside of our own friendship or family circle.
The book offers real-life stories of those who have been incarcerated and come out the other side. How do you think this fits into the current debate about the issues surrounding the juvenile justice system in Australia?
I feel it is timely that this book is being released at this very moment in a time when the juvenile justice system is so topical and the public have more interest in the system than they have had in a long time. Michael Short chief editorial writer for The Age newspaper sums it up in his quote below:
“Rachel, bravo. Doin’ Time is a compelling, inspiring and ultimately beautiful presentation of humanity. At a time when Australians are despairing about the treatment of children in detention, it shines a light on how vulnerable young people can find paths out of danger and difficulty, and how those who support them also benefit hugely. The book is a credit to everyone involved, and shows why Whitelion is such an exemplary jewel in our community. Doin’ Time is, above all, a raw celebration of decency, hope and love. Michael Short.”
Why should we always give people a second chance?
Because giving someone a second chance will not take away the pain, despair and circumstances that led them to risk taking behaviour, a life of crime or an addiction but it can give them the sense of hope and that someone feels they are worthy that they matter in the world. It can make all the difference to them potentially turning their life around if they feel they are not alone and carrying the invisible shackles of their past because no one is willing to give them an opportunity for a different future. It took a huge amount of courage for all of the nine men to step forward and talk about their lives so openly in the book I have a great deal of admiration for them and how each one has broken the cycle and turned their lives around.
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
My dream is to see a very real change in society and the media towards more empathy and understanding for the most vulnerable members of our society.
What is your greatest challenge?
My biggest challenge is to find enough time to do all the things I want to do in this short lifetime. I have two incredible sons and love spending time with them and I have the most amazing group of friends but I am also driven by my passion for the health and wellbeing of children so I am truly fortunate I have high energy levels!
What are you reading at the moment?
I am an avid reader so my house is full of books – guests can choose books with very varied subject matter as I have so many interests. I am currently reading A Mother’s Story by Rosie Batty and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
Do you have a favourite saying?
Don’t let a snap judgement and your perception of someone cloud your view of the reality of what the circumstances of their life really is.
All royalties from Doin’ Time go to the Whitelion charity.