Lessons in learning and giving

The writer (right) with the resourceful, sincere and helpful Lewis.

The writer, a former teacher, takes a trip Down Under and comes away impressed by volunteers who teach and assist in programmes carried out at a learning centre mainly for asylum seekers.

MELBOURNE is ranked, not only as the most livable city in the world (since 2011), but the most expensive, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Reading this created a tug of war in my mind. Should I still go there?

But, hey — life is short and money can always be made if you are prepared to work hard.

Thus, when I flew to this metropolitan city early last month, I kept my thoughts upbeat.

What’s more, not only was the lure of live music and good wine in the cafes bordering the Yarra River difficult to ignore, so were the images of dwarf penguins at Port Phillip, the seagulls at St Kilda and the unique marsupials in the You Yangs Regional Park.

But, I heeded the note of financial caution and made a booking to stay at the Melbourne Metro YHA.

With a complimentary transfer to the hostel included, the Skybus trip from the Tullamarine airport was another economic god-send.

Costing me A$23 (RM66) per night, the hostel turned out to be a perfect choice. It was clean, quiet and a wonderful hub to rub shoulders with young people, students, tourists, backpackers and even professionals from overseas. At the hostel, I found myself sharing my room with three other girls – all old enough to be my daughters. Two were Americans in their twenties and the other was a student at the University of Melbourne who hailed from China.

As a mother of two Generation Y girls, I felt right at home with them!

The Melbourne Metro YHA is located in North Melbourne and is a stone’s throw away from the traditional yet ceremonial St Mary’s Anglican Church and its well-run St Mary’s kindergarten in Queensbury Street.

Children of all ethnicities make their way every weekday morning to this learning haven. On my part, I am glad I decided to pop in and say ‘Hello’ to them.

The minute I saw the signboard, I knew I would also find teachers there. I was greeted with smiles.

From the YHA, you can also enjoy a brisk walk in the cool spring air to the University of Melbourne. With an overall score of 68.2, this university is ranked 34th in the world by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014.

In Australia however, the University of Melbourne enjoys pole position and is the main reason why many Malaysian parents recognise it as a premier tertiary institution of choice for their children.

HOwever, as an educator, my best discovery was the River Nile Learning Centre (RNLC), also located along Queensbury Street.

There I met Emily Lewis, a young Australian girl who helps, three days a week, to coordinate the centre’s out-of-school-hours tutoring programme. Emily informed me that she was a volunteer at the centre for two years before she was appointed to her current position as programme coordinator.

I liked Emily on sight. She was enthusiastic, sincere and helpful. Despite the fact that she is in her third year of an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne, the resourceful undergraduate does not find it a chore to make time for her new responsibilities at RNLC.

As coordinator for the centre’s after-hours tutoring programme, Emily helps out secondary school students (primarily from refugee backgrounds) who turn to her.

I met Rabia (not her real name), an Ethiopian Muslim high school student, in Emily’s office.

Although diffident at first, Rabia was very appreciative of the free tutoring sessions she received in Chemistry, Physics and English at RNLC.

Rabia’s father immigrated to Australia before she was born and is now a taxi driver, while his wife works in a bakery. With six children in the family and the ever-increasing expenses he appreciates the after-hours free tuition Rabia enjoys at the centre.

In Rabia’s case, her tutors are undergraduates from the University of Melbourne who help students like her on a voluntary basis.

I also met the centre’s director Lisa Wilson.

I found Lisa to be warm and approachable, yet a leader who is dynamic, capable and efficient.

RNLC offers two other learning programmes besides tutoring. The first is the Young Women’s Programme, which is a full-time course delivering a Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning.

This charitable project aims to re-engage mainly young African refugee women age between 15 and 25 who, upon arrival in Australia, find it a struggle to cope with the local education setting.

There are 25 charitable organisations and all sorts of grants supporting RNLC programmes. Contributions pour in, not only to aid such women at the centre, but also to provide licenced childcare for those who bring in young children with them.

With the pressure of finding childcare lifted off their minds, these women can therefore focus on their education. Meanwhile, their children are schooled through programmes suitable for them.

Being pragmatic, the RNLC also employs a social worker to look into issues such as stable housing, emotional stability, financial independence and good health – all of which help young women to be more focused on developing their potential enough to secure good jobs in the future.

And if this is not commendable enough, another initiative by RNLC is the Asylum Seeker English Language Programme which provides one-on-one English literacy tutoring to asylum seekers every morning of the week.

In conjunction with the Red Cross, these students work in small groups with assistance from tutors.

With all three programmes running successfully, I was not surprised when Lisa told me that RNLC received a Multicultural Award for Excellence (in the Organisation Category) in 2012 from the state of Victoria.

I also witnessed first-hand how patiently they were being taught by the tutors (mostly retired teachers) who sat with them.

When you are being coached voluntarily by caring educators with a loving, giving spirit, there is only one thing that can be said in typical Aussie fashion: “No worries, mate!”

Yes, timely intervention, charitable assistance and the right education will make life “hunky-dory” for anyone!

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