Empowering Refugee and Migrant Children in Australia
18 June 2018 at 8:37 am
Alice Wojcik is the CEO and founder of the Refugee Migrant Children Centre (RMCC), a charity helping to empower refugee and migrant children to create their own opportunities. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Wojcik and co-founder Bobby Allen were still university students when they started RMCC in 2012.
The charity provides a range of direct tailored services to refugee and migrant children between the ages of five and 18, helping to empower, build knowledge and develop confidence in these young people.
Originating as a community group running a homework club at a local school, the charity has evolved to now assist more than 650 kids across multiple programs, with plans to reach over 2,000 kids by 2020.
In this week’s Changemaker, Wojcik discusses what led her to establish the charity, explains how RMCC is different to other organisations in the sector, and reveals her passions away from work.
Why did you decide to establish RMCC?
Simply because growing up I needed an organisation like RMCC in my life, and to this day there still isn’t anyone else around giving the kind of support we do to kids from refugee, migrant and asylum seeker backgrounds who now call Australia home. It was a situation of the more we looked the less we found, so we took matters into our own hands.
People often think of refugees and think about the hardship of what they experience pre-settlement, but what many people don’t realise or don’t focus on is that the post-settlement journey is just as hard or even harder as studies have shown.
When it comes to kids, there is especially a huge lack of specialised support available to them to ensure their fresh start here in Australia is everything they deserve. There is limited understanding and knowledge about the unique challenges refugee children and youth face once in their new country of settlement, it’s really a silent battle they are facing with inadequate short- to long-term services to help them grow and overcome these to reach their full potential.
This is why RMCC exists, we’re here to tackle things head on together by giving educational and social support that isn’t short lived.
Did you find it difficult initially to get the charity up and running?
Looking back, I would say the early days were much easier because you can be methodical about everything. You make a plan how to get from A to B and there aren’t so many unknowns because you know exactly what you need to get to B.
Once you have worked through that though, that’s when the tough work starts because you’re out on your own and into the unknown. We (RMCC’s co-founder Bobby and myself) didn’t have a blueprint for our programs, or a manual or templates on how to grow a successful charity, we were and still are in unchartered territory and that means every day is different because we’re paving a new way.
Otherwise, being so young did have its challenges because it did make some people uncomfortable or uncertain. Often when people meet with me for the first time I see the wave of confusion come over their faces. This can’t be Alice? But now people quickly know what I’m about and it’s great to smash the stereotype of who people expect me to be.
It’s also difficult to find the people who not only care just as much as you do, but will be there to keep trekking on when it’s tough. I am personally lucky though because I have Bobby as my partner at and outside of work, and our amazing staff and volunteers, some of whom really go above and beyond.
What are some of the major challenges involved in managing a small organisation?
Balancing growth and sustainability, and educating those in the unknown on why RMCC is so crucial.
Growth in programs has grown organically to the point we now have a very large waiting list. When you’re the only organisation doing things the way we do them there is no shortage of people seeking our support.
On the other hand, a lot of people outside of the families we support don’t know about the barriers that RMCC tackles and how these barriers are putting kids who now call Australia home at a further disadvantage to their peers. So even now, we are constantly improving the way we can communicate a big complex issue in a really simple manner for all to understand. There is a fine balance in doing this also, because we don’t want to label any of the kids by the circumstances they are in now. What they are facing today is just a snapshot of their journey and it doesn’t define them as people, they will get past this and move on to be the versions of themselves they want to create.
It also takes time to build financial stability to ensure our programs are around for the kids we support now and for those that are waiting for support but can’t access it because we simply don’t have the resources. RMCC wasn’t started by a trust fund or an established organisation, Bobby and I were literally university students, with less than $100 to our name and for many years our office was our living room.
That means we have had to prove ourselves to our supporters and donors, firstly that we will be sticking around and also that our programs work. This is a chicken or the egg scenario but thankfully we are moving past this and have amazing growing support behind us.
Can you take me through a typical day as CEO?
This question reminds me of one of those job memes, what different people think you do versus what you actually do. I am very good at making everything seem cool, calm and collected – that’s what leaders do right? – but the daily grind is real.
Each day changes and there is always more to be done than possible. So I always ask myself: “Will this add needed value to the kids RMCC supports?” If it does it’s marked as a priority for myself or someone else in the organisation, if it’s not urgent it goes on the wish list.
Some days I’ll be tracking and planning against our strategic plan, strengthening governance, forecasting and budgeting, managing staff and volunteers and their work loads, or going out and meeting with different stakeholders. Being a small organisation also means that I’m doing all sorts of things that are non-CEO related, like writing grants, updating the website or showing off my sausage cooking skills at a sausage sizzle fundraiser on the weekend.
How is your charity different to other organisations in the sector?
This is my favourite question. Some of the differences are that we provide weekly mentoring programs, so we don’t teach or dictate what each kid should be doing but empower them to be able to overcome the barriers they face themselves in a way that works best for them. This means that each program is fluid for each kid because we tailor it to their needs.
Our four focus areas are education, identity and belonging, life skills, and mental health and wellbeing. Our programs focus on all of these aspects. We work in collaboration with schools, so the principals, wellbeing teams and teachers of each kid are all on the same page on what each child’s needs are and how we can all work together to improve engagement and outcomes for them within the classroom, with peers and the wider community.
Our programs are run weekly within schools, after school hours and during school holidays, and all our programs have been created in collaboration and with feedback from the kids and families we work with. A lot of services give support in the first six to 12 months of settlement, such as casework support and intensive English language classes, we come in during and after this time as the settlement journey takes much longer than this.
Most services address the needs of children by supporting their parents or guardians, or the family as a whole. We work with the kids and address their needs directly, and support the parents or guardians to do the same. Lastly, a lot of other services focus on youth aged 15 years and over. We focus on school-aged children and youth from five to 18 years.
What is your goal for RMCC going forward?
The goal is to empower over 2,000 kids by the year 2020.
To do that it means we’ll first need to establish that balance between growth and sustainability and all that entails, we’ll need to keep building and strengthening our amazing team of passionate and dedicated volunteers, and make sure we don’t lose focus on what makes RMCC different and as a result successful along the way.
What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?
This question can make me sound so boring! To be honest, starting RMCC and being the head of the organisation does make it very hard to switch off because its success weighs heavily on you.
Saying that I am starting to practice more of what I preach about self-care. I love learning and challenging myself, nature, animals and creating things. So I love to go on day trips and do such things as going mushroom picking or exploring the Dandenong Ranges. I also love gardening, making jewellery from silver, and reading. We’re also about to become foster cat parents.
Is there anything you are reading, watching or listening to at the moment?
I have a Mensa puzzle book I am working through at the moment and I am re-reading the book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
My favourite songs are Roscoe by Midlake (beyond the wizard’s sleeve remix) and Is That All There Is by Peggy Lee, and I may be guilty of playing these on repeat in the office. Also often making an appearance is Joep Beving, David August and MGMT.
I also love watching documentaries, crime TV shows and some trashy TV.