Bringing the community together to raise our kids
26 July 2021 at 5:19 pm
Susan Barton AM is the founder and director of the Lighthouse Foundation, an organisation with a unique approach to taking care of vulnerable young people and ending the cycle of youth homelessness. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
For the past 40 years, Susan Barton AM has dedicated her life to changing the way Australia sees the issue of youth homelessness.
Following a trip to Sri Lanka where she volunteered in an orphanage caring for sick and malnourished babies and children, she was inspired to take what she had learnt back to Australia.
She began by taking in vulnerable teens that were too old for foster care. This became the catalyst for creating what is now the Lighthouse Foundation.
The Lighthouse Foundation provides a suite of long and short term services for homeless young people, those at risk of becoming homeless and children and young people in out-of-home care.
The organisation takes a therapeutic approach to care, drawing on over 60 years of empirical research into human development across the fields of psychology, psychiatry, trauma and neurobiology which recognises and responds to the complex problems that vulnerable young people face.
This model of care also informs and guides decision making throughout the organisation, helping to build and maintain an organisational culture that promotes psychological safety and wellness of all its members.
And it’s a model that works. With over 10 Lighthouse homes across Melbourne, independent research has found that 83 per cent of the young people that go through the program never enter homelessness again.
Over the years, Barton has positioned herself as a leader in early childhood care, co-authoring a number of books on the therapeutic models of care that the Lighthouse Foundation is championing.
In this week’s Changemaker, Barton discusses the importance of community when taking care of children, the joys of her work, and how she manages challenges.
Was there a moment in your life that you realised you wanted to pursue this kind of career?
Around 40 years ago I was volunteering in an orphanage in Sri Lanka. And while I was there, I saw so many children and babies that were severely malnourished being left behind by parents who couldn’t take care of them. This really shook me to my core because I had two sons at that time and they were everything to me, there wasn’t anything that would stop me from making sure they were ok.
I came back to Australia a really different girl. I knew I couldn’t live in the world and know what is happening and not do something about it. The problems that Australian kids were facing were definitely different, but problems like high suicide rates of young people were still there for instance.
I started fostering children who had reached the end of their tenure in the foster-care system at 18 years. I knew that kids at that age, even in a really great home, weren’t quite ready to leave the nest. And I just couldn’t believe [how many children were being] given to me. I had a really overwhelming urge to protect them. I wanted to care for every child in Australia that didn’t have a parent or a home and love.
What impact has the Lighthouse Foundation had since you started it all those years ago?
We’ve got homes throughout Melbourne and we’ve had over 1,000 young people that have gone through the program. Early on we had a psychologist come in to find out why this model worked and why it was that when our young people moved out they weren’t becoming homeless again, which is the usual trajectory of a young person in care. What she discovered was it was really about having someone in the young person’s life that cared and would protect them. So it’s that attachment, and also a sense of belonging in the community.
Can you explain a bit about the model that the Lighthouse Foundation operates under?
The traditional residential-care framework is that kids are taken out of the community and put in residential care where they have 15 to 20 different people throughout the week looking after them. We knew that we needed long-term care for the young people. The other thing we designed was a community care model for our kids. Why are we expecting the government to take care of children when it’s a system? Systems don’t care for kids, communities care for children and people care for children.
Every time we open a home in a community, we open what we call a community committee. Groups of 12 to 15 people form these committees and make sure the home in their suburb never closes. This committee helps to mentor the young people, take them on holidays, bake cakes for the carers and raise funds. This means that the number of people that surround our young people in the community multiplies. This goes a long way to building the young people’s sense of resilience, which is so important for building relationships, finding employment, and being happy. And when we did an independent report, it showed that 83 per cent of our young people never entered homelessness again, and that’s quite extraordinary.
What does your day look like as the head of the Lighthouse Foundation?
Our office is open plan and I sit close to where the young people enter for the first time, and get to say hello to them. I also get to witness their journey throughout the years that they’re with us.I see the celebrations in our communal kitchen, whether that’s when our young people move into a transitional program or seeing them move out, with a couple of other young people, into a sharehouse. I’m heavily involved in raising funds as the foundation has never had any recurrent government funding in its 40 years.
What advice do you have for other people wanting to make a change in the world?
I often mentor new founders, and it’s one of my favourite things to do. I always talk about surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you and have different perspectives on things so that you can get a wide range of information. Get yourself a mentor, lean into love, and if there’s a challenge, don’t shy away from it.
One of my heroes, Robert Kiyosaki, who wrote the books “Rich Dad Poor Dad”, and “If you want to be rich and happy, don’t go to school”, used to always say to me, “eat the elephant bite by bite”. So if the problem seems too big, chunk it down. I also now know that there’s no such thing as a mistake, they are just learning experiences.
One of the biggest things is to just keep focused on your true purpose or your mission and the rest will follow. And take responsibility. If there’s a challenge, take responsibility for it. Don’t just blame the government, or whatever else, think about what you can do about the problem, and who you can bring along with you to make a change.
And when you’re not at the Lighthouse Foundation, how do you like to spend your time?
The young people at Lighthouse are never far from my thoughts. My own life and the organisation are intertwined beautifully, there’s no beginning or end, it’s part of a big tapestry. I think that the quote, “it takes a whole village to raise a child” really is about my life. But, I do really love reading about entrepreneurs who think outside of the box, that’s really what inspires me to keep going.