The key to a healthier future lies in education.
An education can do more than just open up future job opportunities. It has also been shown to have a profound impact on health and well-being.
In the remote Jawoyn Indigenous communities to the east of Katherine, in the Northern Territory, a special project is helping to improve education outcomes and health conditions in the area.
The Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth Literacy Empowerment Project has been in operation in these communities for the past three years. The idea for the project began when Ian visited the area back in 2003.
“It was after visiting some of the Jawoyn communities that Ian decided to speak out about the urgency of doing more to improve the health and education of Aboriginal children,” says Fountain for Youth CEO Jeff McMullen, who is also a writer, filmmaker and former ABC and 60 Minutes reporter. “He’d seen wretched poverty in other nations but he had never imagined such disadvantage in Australia.”
Up to 80 per cent of the Jawoyn children have chronic hearing loss caused by persistent, untreated middle ear infections. Anaemia and other poverty related conditions weaken concentration and the ability to learn.
“Ian was unsettled when deaf children could not hear him” Jeff says. “He saw infants that were not thriving and other children with the first signs of diseases that could cut short their lives by decades. He listened thoughtfully to the Jawoyn elders and recognised that he had the capacity to help make a difference.”
In the Northern Territory just 60 Aboriginal students in government schools completed the School Certificate in 2004, and in some Aboriginal communities, illiteracy rates are as high as 93 per cent.
“Imagine your own chances,” Jeff points out. “If you can’t read you won’t understand the label on a medication bottle, even if you need that medicine to live. You’ll be lucky to get a driver’s licence. You’ll be trapped in the maze of poverty, low-paying work or unemployment, with sickening welfare dependency, life-threatening powerlessness and wretched health.
“You are also more likely to have children who will inherit this same disadvantage, unless, through literacy and opportunity, they can step through the right door to a brighter future.”
With the support of the Commonwealth Government, who has committed $1 million, t he Literacy Empowerment Project incorporates several different programs to improve outcomes.
- Literacy backpacks have been introduced to promote reading to Aboriginal children and their families. They contain books and book vouchers, books as encouragement awards for attendance and effort and also newspapers and women’s magazines for parents.
- Health and life skills education programs promote a healthy lifestyle for children, focusing on personal and community safety, self-esteem, a healthy attitude to alcohol and drugs, and developing good nutritional habits.
- Early Learning for young mothers at the Women’s Centres teaches young mothers how to provide pre-school education to their children, as well as offering them advice on infant nutrition and health.
- The project also contributes to the annual Walking with Spirits Festival, which has been staged since 2004 on the shores of the lake at Beswick Falls, near Wugularr in the Northern Territory. Aboriginal elders share traditional stories with children and visitors, and children are also introduced to a range of film-making, puppetry and animation skills.
When the US Surgeon General David Satcher visited Australia a few years ago he was pressed for a solution to the health crisis cutting short Aboriginal lives. His answer was education.
“Life-skills education creates the necessary motivation and knowledge for individuals to seek to gain control of their lives, an essential first step to better long-term health,” Jeff says. “For instance, did you know that for every extra year of education Australia can provide to young mothers, up to four years may be added to the life expectancy of her child?
“It’s a different take on literacy, isn’t it?”
Fountain for Youth invites members of the public and corporations to sponsor a child’s Literacy Backpack or make a donation to the project. To sponsor a backpack or make a donation, head to www.ianthorpesfountainforyouth.com.au