Naidoc Week: meet Leisa Garling!

This is NAIDOC Week, the time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and recognise the contributions that Indigenous Australians make to our country and society. This week, we’re focusing on Indigenous staff who are making an incredible impact at some of our member organisations. Today we interview Leisa Garling who runs Mission Australia’s Circles of Care schools program in Yarrabah, a coastal Aboriginal community on Cape Grafton.

Tell us about yourself.

I live in Cairns, North Queensland. I was born in Townsville but grew up mostly in Cairns and went to Cairns State High School. My country is the Chillagoe/Mt Mulligan area. I’m married with three children. Throughout my career in Queensland and the Northern Territory, I have mostly worked with NGOs.

For me personally, I have found NGOs to be able to work closely with our mob and the programs have been more flexible to be what our young people and families need.

What attracted you to working for Mission Australia, and what does your work entail as a community development officer?

I had worked for Mission Australia in the Northern Territory and knew the organisation was well established and had a good reputation. I coordinate the Circles of Care program in Yarrabah, and my role has many branch-off areas, but the core is working with the community, families and the school to support children to be the best they can be and get an education. This is done through building and maintaining respectful relationships with all involved.

Helping kids thrive: Leisa helps kids in the Circles of Care program to be the best they can be and get an education.

Tell us about the Circles of Care program. What makes it different from other programs that seek to help Indigenous kids thrive at school?

Circles of Care is a coordinated program which supports the student through a holistic approach with families, the school and other relevant services.

With the flexibility to adapt the program to each student’s needs, we build and maintain relationships with community by providing engagement that is relevant and non-judgemental to individuals and is inclusive to all.

What project have you done in Circles of Care that you are most proud of or excited about at Mission Australia?

Probably the Kindness Team and the Dream Buyal Bandu (Strong Together) programs. Both were grassroots initiatives with children and their families.

The Dream Buyal Bandu was created with women in Yarrabah to help support their daughters/granddaughters. There were a lot of things happening in the community to assist boys, but not a lot for girls. Through community consultation, working with the Elders and families, we created a program and approached the primary school.

It started as a 10-week program six years ago and now runs throughout the school year. Besides giving the girls at school a support team around them, it has been a fantastic tool to engage families who now know our service and have seen how we work with their children.

Tell us about the ‘jars of kindness’ that the kids recently made for Mission staff?

Through the Kindness Team, we do an act of kindness each term targeting a different group. The jars came about through conversations about what I do and what Mission Australia does and that without a team around me back in Cairns I wouldn’t be able to do all the cool things I get to do with them in Yarrabah.

The kids then wanted to thank the team that supports me, and they brainstormed a few different ideas and decided on something that people could see and touch every day, to remind them they were important. They filled the jars with personal items, positive messages and things to tell them to enjoy the moment, etc.

We understand the Circles of Care program is funded through Mission Australia’s fundraising programs, rather than the government. Does this allow you more flexibility? How so?

Absolutely! It has allowed the program to adapt and grow over the years. From feedback from the community, we have been able to see what works and get rid of what doesn’t to allow the program to evolve and stay relevant for those that need the service. I don’t know if we would have been able to do that with government funding. It’s amazing the achievements that we’ve been able to be a part of in the last eight years of Mission Australia’s commitment to Yarrabah.

Crafty: Leisa enjoys looking for new craft ideas to share with the kids in the Circles of Care program.

What are the joys and challenges in your work?

Joys: seeing a family I have worked with succeeding, watching a child build their confidence, having their attendance improve or achieving a milestone.

Challenges: there aren’t always the services a family needs to access in the community, and that adds to the family’s struggles. Yearly funding has been a challenge.

Do you feel personally rewarded by your work with Mission Australia? How?

Yes. I get to go to work every day and help others, and I have the privilege of getting to hear people’s stories and then watching their journeys as they become empowered to make changes in their lives and know that there are people out there to give them a helping hand.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m pretty boring! I usually just hang out with my husband and kids. I’m always looking for a new craft idea for the kids’ programs at the school or volunteering.

Founded in 1997, Mission Australia offers 461 programs and services, specialising in the areas of homelessness/housing, families and children, early learning, youth, employment and skills, disability, mental health, alcohol/drugs and strengthening communities. Mission Australia is particularly known for its work helping Australians in need to regain their independence. Read more about their work: