Just having a mentor helps young carers like Wodonga’s Adele Waite realise there is still a world of opportunity out there for them, writes BEN ROBSON.
HER face is half hidden beneath a sweep of dark hair.
You can see she’s a typical teenager — she likes heavy metal and wears DC shoes and carries a backpack adorned with skulls.
But what you don’t see, apart from one of those shy eyes, is that Adele Waite is also a 15-year-old carer for her grandmother.
“She’s always been a mother figure so I call her Mum,” Adele says.
“She has arthritis, diabetes and anxiety.
“Sometimes it’s tough, especially making sure she eats properly; she’s recently had bowel cancer removed so she’s had trouble eating certain amounts.
“It does worry me sometimes, but just being around her I know she’s OK.”
It’s a heavy responsibility, one Adele couldn’t tell you how long she’s borne.
“I don’t know — while she was OK she was caring for herself,” she says.
“It’s just got that bad now, I honestly haven’t been counting.”
But while it can no doubt feel like it, Adele is not alone.
Marion Rak is project co-ordinator for the Young Carer Mentor Program, which links young carers like Adele with mentors who can offer a little respite and a little support.
And it doesn’t take much, just to let young carers know someone is there for them.
“Villa Maria has young carers who are students and are looking after parents, grandparents or siblings who have an illness, whether mental or physical,” Marion says.
“It could be arthritis, multiple sclerosis, serious illnesses like that, which take a bit of care.
“Quite often it’s the young person in the household who is the one who has to help administer medicine or get them to the doctors.
“So in a lot of cases they’re growing up before their time.
“Often people don’t know they have a role at home.
“And they don’t think about the fact they’re caring for someone, that they’re playing a pivotal role in their lives.
“A lot of times they do what they need to do and that’s it.”
Having taken up the position in January, Marion says children as young as 10 are taking on the role of carer.
The Border and North East program started last year, supported by Villa Maria, the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, the Flora & Frank Leith Charitable Trust and the Pierce Armstrong Foundation.
Among the concerns for young carers is that many struggle with getting to school because they worry about what’s happening at home, and Marion says there is a high incidence of school leavers among carers.
“What having a mentor does is give the carers confidence — they know we’re here to protect them and they know their mentor will look after them."
More than 60 per cent of young carers say they have been unable to participate in school, and nearly 80 per cent say they don’t have the energy for the classroom.
“If they are at school all day they’re still wondering, is mum OK?” Marion says.
“I’ve had a young carer say to me if their mum’s not looking well in the morning they don’t go to school.
“They’re frightened that if someone takes her off to hospital they won’t be able to find her.
“Mentors are not teachers; that’s not their job.
“But they’re often there to encourage and support and help carers with their studies.”
The program gives young carers respite from the worries and responsibilities — even if only for a short while.
“I hope a mentor can come along and become a friend of the family,” Marion says.
“A friend who can take the carer out for a walk, just to give them someone else to talk to and confide in.
“Sometimes the carer is quite shy and very often they don’t let their friends know that’s what they do, so they might not have friends round to play after school for that reason.”
While Adele has friends she can rely on, friends who have been through similar experiences, there’s no doubt that a mentor has an important role to play in her life.
“It’s fun,” Adele says.
“We only really go out once a month otherwise we don’t have anything to talk about.
“But we go to Albury markets and have a walk around — it’s really helpful.
“It’s good to know I’ve got someone else to rely on.”
Her mentor is Albury’s Renee Campbell.
“I’ve always liked helping out and volunteering and I’ve done mentoring before,” Renee says.
“It’s very rewarding.
“You get to see them grow and come out of their shells.”
And that’s what Villa Maria is about, Marion says.
Carers are often so busy helping others they don’t always pursue their own interests and dreams.
But Adele is attending 2 Cool 4 School at the Albury Wodonga Community College and harbours dreams of working in audio production and entertainment management.
Just having a mentor like Renee helps carers realise there’s still a world of opportunity out there for them.
“Adele was very shy but since having a mentor she’s really come out a lot,” Marion says.
“What having a mentor does is give the carers confidence — they know we’re here to protect them and they know their mentor will look after them.
“There’s a girl in Wangaratta who’s rapt with her mentor who is a young mum with a baby — she thinks it’s great to go out with them both.”
The not-for-profit organisation is always looking for more mentors to volunteer.
According to Villa Maria, more than 170,000 Australians under 18 are carers.
More than half said it was hard to make and keep friends as a result of their responsibilities, leading to feelings of isolation.
Making Marion’s job of finding mentors all the more important.
“One of the main reasons I got the role was that I have a big network and I’m not frightened to do the publicity,” she says.
“I’ve always been part of voluntary organisations and I can tap into my network and find mentors.”
But catering for the Hume region means there’s always a need for more.
“If I can pick up another half a dozen or more I’d be rapt,” Marion says.
“Especially if there are mentors who are willing to perhaps travel that bit of distance.
“A lot of it is to do with the isolation, there
are kids that are caring for a recipient in a small town and the town doesn’t even know it’s happening.
“Sometimes the carers don’t want them to know, and sometimes they wouldn’t want a mentor from their own town.
“What we need is someone who is able to take them out of that town and area, even for just for half a day.”
Many of the mentors work, but even something like meeting once a month at a Sunday market and having breakfast is enough.
“Adele knows she has Renee’s number, so if something goes wrong or she needs to speak to someone she can call,” Marion says.
“It’s just a little bit of a back up, and that’s what it’s all about.”
For details about becoming a mentor, phone Marion on (03) 5722 9046 or visit villamaria.com.au.