Take a look at the website for St Helena Secondary College in Eltham North and you will read that included among the school values are ‘Respect’ and ‘Responsibility’.
At CatholicCare's Refugee Housing and Support Project in Eltham, fifteen students from Year 12 are demonstrating just how they live those values.
Armed with paintbrushes and garden tools, the VCAL students have been working on a project to prepare and plant garden beds in front of the Rundle House units. They have also undertaken to decorate the Children's Playroom so that the youngest of the newly arrived refugees will have a welcoming space to play. The students come every Thursday and are aiming to complete the project by June, just in time for Refugee Week.
"Before we came we had to do projects on refugees and learn about why they've come here, what happened before the war, what happened during the war and then learn about when they're in camps," said Maddie. "We all had background knowledge before we got started."
Maddie explains that the learning has continued as the project progressed. "It's been really good meeting the refugee families," she said. "We hear about it on the news and we don't think much of it but then we come here and meet people who had to flee their country and it just opens our eyes to what's actually happening in the world."
Bayley agrees with Maddie: "At the time, I didn't really know what refugees were. But now actually, coming here and seeing the families – they're just normal families who just want to start fresh. We're here just to make them feel welcome, like people, like they're not intruding."
The students are splattered in paint having just finished painting the Playroom, and they all agree that the project is the biggest they had been involved in … "lots of thinking time, having to plan everything and still having to keep up with school work!"
The girls are excited about their plans to decorate the Playroom. They have chosen the colourful decals that will adorn the walls, and will include 3D butterflies in keeping with the Welcome to Eltham Butterfly campaign.
Meanwhile the boys are busy in the garden, music streaming from a portable speaker as they measure out the sleepers to construct the garden beds. Except for a few boys who are kicking a soccer ball with two pre-school children who have recently moved into a unit with their parents; the family having recently fled the conflict in Syria.
The little children were brought down to meet with the students on their first week of the project and now they look forward to Thursdays when the older kids are there, knowing they will always spare some time to play a game or two. The students are thrilled that since the project started, the little children have grown in confidence and are building their English language skills.
Teacher, Sue Goff, is watching over the VCAL group with pride. "The VCAL project is about learning practical skills that can help the students to transition to work or TAFE, but it's also about personal development," said Sue. "Through this project, they will learn about connecting to the community and about leadership. They have already presented to all the Year 12s on what they have learned about Syrian refugees; in Refugee Week they will be sharing their learnings with the whole school community."
This week is Youth Week; an opportunity for young people to express their ideas and views, and to act on issues that affect their lives. It is the ideal time to celebrate the young students from St Helena Secondary College. Their project highlights the valuable contribution that young people can make towards greater understanding of the refugee experience while providing a practical response to welcoming refugees into our community.
Find out more about the Eltham Refugee Housing and Support Project
St Helena College students support refugees