Helping children from afar
17 August 2020 at 8:18 am
For adults, the current state of the world is strange and unpleasant. But for kids, this new world is even more daunting. It’s something that Margo Ward, the CEO of kids mental health charity KidsXpress, is trying to address. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Having to complete schooling from home, not being able to see friends, and absorbing all the stress and anxiety of the current pandemic without actually understanding what the problem is, or what can be done about it, is a lot for a small child to take on board.
In the past three months, mental health services such as Kids Helpline have reported a 28 per cent year-on-year increase in calls.
The back-to-back summer bushfires and coronavirus disasters of 2020 have meant kids are under more stress than ever, and in more need of programs that organisations like KidsXpress have to offer.
Backed by her experience working in children’s therapy and suicide prevention, Ward founded KidsXpress in 2005. The organisation seeks to transform the lives of children impacted by trauma and adversity through a world-first therapy program that combines art, music, play and drama.
In this week’s Changemaker, Ward discusses what led her to founding KidsXpress, challenges and how to overcome them, and why finding time for the things you love is important as a leader.
What sorts of challenges are children facing at the moment?
Children aren’t just dealing with coronavirus, but the bushfires and the floods that happened earlier in the year. Children are great absorbers of stress and we know that the increased level of anxiety and stress is palpable. During COVID, they had to homeschool, they were having to have conversations about this virus that nobody can see, and they couldn’t hug their grandparents.
And what I think many of us are incredibly conscious of is that we as adults are living in the initial stages of COVID, but our children will live and deal with this legacy as adults. And so addressing children’s mental health and building their resilience is incredibly important to their future.
How has KidsXpress adapted to ensure you are helping vulnerable kids?
Because our programs are so interactive and face-to-face, when COVID was first brought to our attention, we brought everybody together and said, if this is to go as we predicted, what are we going to do? And what will happen if we do nothing? And the answer profoundly and loudly from the team was that to do nothing was not an option. I’m really proud to say that as we then realised we were going into lockdown, we managed to set all our staff up and pivot everything so that within 48 hours we had seamlessly gone from face-to-face, to delivering therapy and support online to our current clients and our school communities.
How do you overcome challenges in stressful situations?
I think as the leader of the organisation I have really leant on my staff and the board for advice on how to keep everyone together and how I could create certainty in an uncertain time. I had to dig really deep in terms of my own abilities and my own resolve and my own values. I took the viewpoint of then saying that I would get everybody through COVID and out the other side of it.
I’ve also done a lot of personal work looking at who I am, what my values are, and how I communicate my real authenticity, so that it doesn’t matter who I speak to I’m exactly the same, whether I’m speaking to a funder, a staff member, a client, or a child. In doing so, it meant that sometimes I needed to be very vulnerable. Even in the early days, having Zoom conversations with funders just admitting that things were hard. Being able to lead with vulnerability and clarity have been incredibly important during this time.
What advice do you have for people wanting to make a difference in the world?
Think very carefully about it. A lot of people think working in the charity space is an easy thing to do. It’s not. Setting up something that was a world-first program and was based on a dream certainly had its challenges. Even seeing the paradigm shift from being a really good therapist to being a businesswoman was incredibly challenging.
The other thing that I have learned over my career is that I truly believe we all have the same purpose. We are human kind, and our purpose in life is to be both human and to be kind. To be human is to really look at what your skill-set is, what you are capable of, and do that to the best of your ability. And to be human is how you communicate everything to your very best ability, but do it through a lens of kindness. Kindness isn’t about being a pushover either, it’s about having really clear boundaries and non-negotiables, but working through the lens of kindness.
And what do you like to do in your spare time?
I love latin dancing. I’m really bad at it, but I love it. One of the things I did during the COVID lockdown was download this really great app called Body Groove, and at the end of every day I would stop what I was doing, put it on and I would literally dance around my lounge room for a bit to bookend my day. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but it made me feel great.