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Community Focus

Nobody better than my Click

This online forum is connecting a diverse range of people against a common enemy. 

Marianne Rom was naked in her bathroom when she realised she had breast cancer. Catching a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror as she stretched for a towel after a shower, she noticed something unusual. “I thought, ‘Wow, that looks a bit off’,” she says. “I turned my head back and had a really good look at myself, and my two breasts were completely different. And then I raised my arms, and my two breasts were on different levels. And then there was all this dimpling and a bit of puckering, and I just felt sick at that moment. I felt sick because
I knew at that exact moment I had breast cancer.”

But her GP wasn’t convinced. Marianne showed her doctor, who dismissed it. “She said, ‘Just because you have dimpling, doesn’t mean you have breast cancer; you have orange-peel thighs’,” Marianne says. Though sceptical, the doctor ordered an ultrasound. Within two minutes of having her scan, people were running around. “They knew, and I knew,” Marianne says. “Within an hour and a half I had my doctor on the phone, saying, ‘You need to come in’.”
That diagnosis came 18 months after Marianne first started feeling unwell – so, when it was confirmed, she was more relieved than upset to hear the word ‘cancer’. “The sheer relief I felt when those people at the radiology clinic started running around – finally someone else was taking this seriously. I was lying there on the bed, crying, because I knew. The doctor said, ‘I know it must be terrible for you to hear the news.’ No, not that, it’s the fact that finally someone believes me. Just sheer relief.”

Marianne was referred to The Click – an online forum for breast cancer patients run by Breast Cancer Care WA. It’s a free service, monitored by professional counsellors and breast care nurses, where patients can share experiences with peers and experts. But at first Marianne didn’t use it. “I thought that I could do it on my own,” she admits. That changed when, after her surgery, she still wasn’t feeling well. “The expectation was on me to get back to my life like nothing’s changed, just keep going with life the way it was. I was becoming quite resentful and bitter. One day, I just got the paperwork back out and went on The Click, and I thought, ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner? I’m not alone. These people do understand me’.”

Marianne says she now uses the service to help people understand that there’s someone there to listen to them. “There’s someone who can relate to the emotions and the anxiety, and you know there’s someone there experiencing what you’re experiencing,” she says. That’s crucial for Marianne, because of her misdiagnosis. “We know our bodies, we know when something’s wrong, so I advocate people just keep going, and plugging along, until someone listens to you, because someone will listen at the end of the day.”

But her story doesn’t end there. A genetic predisposition means that Marianne’s cancer is likely to return, and she says she returns to The Click to offer advice to other patients, because she knows she’ll need the service again one day. “I don’t live in fear, but every time you get a new mark or a lump or a bump you wonder what this one’s going to be,” she says frankly. A black mark spotted on the roof of her mouth by a new dentist 18 months ago had Marianne contemplating her future in another chair. “He asked, ‘How long have you had this mark for?’ I said, ‘What mark? What do you mean?’ and the tears just started flowing. I was just thinking this could be it – I’ve seen what happens when you get a tumour in the roof of your mouth. You lose the side of your face, your nose, your teeth and gums.”

Other people on The Click understand her fears, Marianne says, describing it as a lifeline. “I would be lost without it now,” she says. “Knowing that the cancer may come back – there’s going to be a point in time where I will need that service more than what I do now.” breastcancerclick.com.au.

 

Short Back & Sidewalks helps men like Richard from St Batholomew’s House alter the perception of the homeless, and gain an increased sense of self-worth (photography Ian and Erick).

Clean start

Do-gooding trendsetters are gifting self-pride in an unusual – but very effective – way.

“People used to avoid me when I had a mullet,” says Michael Curtois frankly. “The looks you’d get, y’know? But when you’re walking around with a decent haircut, you’re just another person.” He chuckles shyly between sentences, taking pauses to think of how he wants to describe his new haircut – a crisp, trendy ’do. “My presentation’s a lot better than it was,” he says slowly. “I’m looking for work at the moment, and people look at your hairdo first. It makes me look younger, and it makes me feel confident, which I’m probably lacking.” That’s just what the team at Short Back & Sidewalks was hoping when it first started offering haircuts to the homeless – pairing hipster barber Westons Barbershop with homeless service providers to offer people like Michael, a St Bartholemew’s House resident, a confidence boost – as well as challenging perceptions of homelessness. “There aren’t many organisations that focus on personal appearance, because at the end of the day they’re prioritising more urgent needs like helping a person have a roof over his head, or getting him food,” says Craig Hollywood, one of the members of the Short Back & Sidewalks team. “But sadly, appearance is something that contributes to people’s negative opinions of homeless people.” The team makes a point of sitting and chatting with the guys waiting for their haircuts, to find out more about their lives than just their residential state. “There was this one guy, Brad, who said the haircut made him feel like a bit of a hipster,” says Craig with a laugh. “We saw him on William Street a few hours after his haircut, just kicking around with a bubble tea, smiling. You could see he felt so much better about himself. And we didn’t necessarily say anything to make him feel like that – we just gave him a haircut.” Laura Yau, the community relations manager at St Bartholomew’s, agrees. “Too often, we take a haircut for granted,” she says. “For some of the men, the transformation was significant.” And how did Michael feel after his trim? “Cold,” he says, and laughs. “I’ve never felt the wind on the back of my head! Nah, it was unbelievable.” shortbackandsidewalks.com.

 

Christine Layton from 98Five, and Chantal Roberts, executive officer of Shelter WA, promote Homelessness Prevention Week, during which Street Smugglers helps raise funds and awareness for homelessness bodies like Shelter.

Sleeping rough

A local advocacy group is tackling a $10 billion problem.

On his first night sleeping on the streets, Conrad Liveris was woken up by someone trying to steal his bag from underneath his head. He’d been using it as a makeshift pillow, snatching sleep in 45-minute bursts in between being woken by the weather and the noise of passers-by. “It was cold and windy, it often rained, and this was the middle of summer,” he recalls. “It’s exhausting.”
But the disrupted sleep wasn’t the most surprising part of sleeping rough. When Conrad and his brothers bunked down, the people sleeping next to them warned them to get out of the nightlife spots after nine or 10 o’clock at night, because they’d get hurt by passing revellers. As it turned out, that wasn’t an issue for Conrad – he was in a park on Lake Street in Northbridge when a sprinkler turned on and soaked his shoes, sending him from the nightclub strip to the grounds of the Perth Concert Hall for the rest of the night. “Sleeping on the streets is an isolating and exhausting experience,” he says frankly. “Even though the environment is familiar, you’re not welcome in your own city. A distance is created between you and society – a glass cage.” That disconnect is something that stayed with him after he returned home – because actually, Conrad isn’t homeless. He’s an advocate for homeless people and, with his brothers, a co-founder of Street Smugglers, a not-for-profit homeless organisation. His week of sleeping on the streets was an exercise in empathy – a chance to gain insight into what it’s like for the 100,000 Australians who don’t have a choice about it. “When you realise that homelessness costs over $10 billion a year and is a reality for over 100,000 Australians, it’s hard to sit still,” he says of the issue. $10 billion is the amount of government funding to support homelessness services. “And it becomes ever-more frustrating when you realise that we have the solutions and do know how to solve homelessness – supporting people into housing, stable accommodation, and then into education and training to enter the workforce.” Street Smugglers supports mainstream service providers by fundraising, raising awareness about homeless people’s stories, and engaging in outreach activities – like a TEDx event in Bunbury earlier this year, where Conrad spoke on a “$10 billion problem we ignore”. He says the first-hand experience of living on the streets has made him realise the role that he can play in reducing poverty. “When I first started thinking about this issue deeply I started to see homelessness more,” he says. “I would walk through the city and wanted to help everyone who was homeless. From there, we started to talk to homeless people and started to realise that the major services are doing a great job, but we can always aid in other ways. We need to recognise that homeless people are part of our city and we should be inclusive and support them out of homelessness. We all need to be active and vigilant on this issue.” facebook.com/streetsmugglersau.

 

Schoolchildren taking part in activities with mentors from Ignite.

Lighting the flame

This youth-on-youth mentoring service is bridging the education gap.

One of the students that Michael Bragg mentored spent the first lesson crouched under his desk. “We tried to coax him out, but it didn’t work,” Michael says. “His language skills weren’t very good, he was very shy, and I think maybe a little bit apprehensive about meeting new people.” Though initially resistant, as time went on, the boy opened up. “Over the next few weeks, as he realised all the students were having fun getting to know us, he watched from the outskirts, and then over the next couple of weeks he piped up, and included himself a bit more, and ended up being one of the most inclusive members of the group,” says Michael. “He was very much one of the leaders of the students in undertaking the activities we did.” Michael visited the boy’s school as a mentor with Ignite, a not-for-profit that pairs university-aged mentors with students from high schools in low socio-economic areas, to bridge an education gap that most of us don’t even think about. Though students in some public schools in Perth receive free laptops and step straight from high school to university, students at others share
a lab of 20 slow computers between all the pupils, and meet the first university students they’ve known when the Ignite mentors walk through the door. “You have young people who are still cool, modelling that it’s ok to achieve academically,” explains Paul Fitzpatrick, an English teacher who’s used Ignite mentors in his classes. “Without generalising – because we do have kids who love doing their best – there are going to be kids engaged in this culture of it not being cool to chase academic success. It’s not cool to show people that you care enough to do that.” One example? A student who previously laughed at the idea of going to university, because it was “uncool”, decided after talking to his mentor that he wanted to go to uni and study computer science, to learn how to design iPhone apps. “To me, that’s one of the greatest benefits of having the Ignite mentors come in,” says Paul. “They see real people, that they can relate to and link to and have some sort of ongoing relationship with, who show exactly the opposite, that it’s a good thing; it’s pretty cool to strive.” Michael says that’s what the mentors try to do, but students sometimes don’t understand that his role isn’t as a teacher. “We’re not there to get them in trouble,” he says. “We wear casual clothes, we talk about the footy; we try and connect.” Paul says that one of the most valuable sessions for the kids is when the mentors talk about their lives, so kids can see the rewards that come from trying – but he admits that it’s difficult to measure the long-term success of such a strategy. “There’s no doubt that the kids benefit, there’s no doubt that the kids enjoy it, but there’s a problem that they’re only around the Ignite mentors for an hour

a week, and they’re influenced by their peers. I can’t see anything but good coming from the mentoring.” ignitementoring.org.

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