Alumni News Articles

Dr Catherine Keenan, Australia's Local Hero 2016 for National Volunteer Week 2016

11 May 2016

Dr Catherine Keenan, Australia's Local Hero 2016 for National Volunteer Week 2016

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Sydney Story Factory. In the nearly four years since we opened, we’ve trained over 1,400 volunteers, around 600 of whom are currently active. They range in age from 15 to 90 and come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have just started studying at university; others are retired teachers.

Our volunteers do all kinds of things, from painting walls to staffing our shop, but their main role is to tutor the young people who come in for our free creative writing and storytelling workshops. We have fantastic staff who design and lead all these workshops, but it’s the volunteers who sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the students, helping them through the complex and exciting process of writing a story or poem or podcast. The volunteers shine that light of attention on each child, taking a genuine interest in their ideas and encouraging them to stretch their imaginations that little bit further. The effect can be transformative.

Our favourite metaphor is that the volunteers are like a safety net for the students. Writing is hard and young people get stuck, just as grown ups do.  When that happens, and they’ve wrestled with the problem for a while, you can see them tentatively suggest an idea to their tutor. “What if the dragon felt shy and ran away?” The volunteer is there to catch that and say: “Yes! That’s a great idea. Then what happened?” A smile of satisfaction spreads across the student’s face and the story is on its way again.

The volunteers, of course, will tell you they benefit from this exchange as much as the students do. There is not an incubator in the land that generates as many strange and fabulous ideas as a seven-year-old trying to imagine the courting rituals of Poopy the one-eyed dinosaur. As one volunteer put it, writing a story with a student is like getting a little injection of creativity.

For me, seeing the volunteers come in is like getting a little injection of optimism about the world. Every week, up to 100 of them freely give up an hour or even a couple of days for no other reason than to help a child. Many of them come in week after week, year after year, developing relationships with young people that can change the course of their lives.

They do not ask for thanks, but on behalf of all the young people they help, I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart.

2016 Local Hero

Dr Catherine Keenan

Youth educator

A former journalist, arts writer and literary editor, Catherine Keenan turned her back on her career in 2012 to help nurture the talent and creativity of marginalised young Australians. As the co-foun...

View Honour Roll profile for Catherine Keenan