The story of Mercy Connect
A road trip from Sydney to Perth with visits to the Mercy Connect projects in Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo would add over 4,000 kilometres to your speedometer. Yet such a journey still wouldn’t accurately show just how valuable the Mercy Connect program is.
School can be a daunting place for anyone. Add in adjusting to a new language, different social rules and ways of learning and it may all become too much. This is where Mercy Connect comes in. This program recruits and trains volunteers to mentor and support refugee students.
Starting in Sydney in 2008, Mercy Connect began with basic goals to help refugee and asylum seeker children to settle into the Australian education system. This is still the focal point but it now also supports parents and mature age students, helping them get the education they deserve.
12 years on and Mercy Connect is now in five cities across Australia, with more than 300 volunteers supporting over 1400 students in 116 primary and secondary schools.
Mercy Connect Sydney | Coordinator: Paul Taylor
In a year when the phrase “Annus horribilis” has become a cliché, I feel blessed in many ways, as Mercy Connect Coordinator, to have witnessed the exceptional determination, resilience and resourcefulness of the Mercy Connect Volunteer mentors.
At last count, because of COVID, we have just three volunteers flying the Mercy Connect flag in Sydney, only able to enter their schools with special permission.
This certainly does not mean our other wonderful volunteers have been idle. I pay tribute to the Mercy Connect providers of online support for HSC students and adult conversation classes, the writers of cards to sixth graders who they started mentoring in kindergarten, the carers for elderly relatives, the online story readers, the helping hands at charity kitchens, the minders of grandchildren and the listening ear at the end of the telephone when friends and family are all feeling it is a bit too much.
Although 2020 is a year that we will be glad to put behind us, I look forward to better times and a 2021 that will rightly be seen as an “annus mirabilis”.
Mercy Connect Melbourne | Coordinator: Sr Mary Lewis rsm
Term One started and our Melbourne volunteers were eager to get back into the classroom. But this stopped in early March when all schools were forced to close their doors to visitors. The rapid onset of restrictions as a result of the pandemic brought with it both sadness and anxiety. How could we keep in touch? Schools were already under great pressure with students beginning to learn from home.
Disconnection was not an option for our Mercy Connect schools and volunteers. We have been active in recruiting, applying for funding and preparing for functions.
Our library program for adults has been able to continue with the aid of technology. Zoom and telephone calls have replaced face-to-face meetings. Staying connected has never been more important. During isolation, our volunteers have used emails to share their activities. Ranging from walking, gardening, to early spring cleaning. It is safe to say our volunteers have found ways to keep themselves busy.
They all are keeping busy but there is a small flash of hope at the end of every day. A small line at the end of an email sharing that they can’t wait to get back into schools keeps this hope alive. We are anticipating a big return as soon as possible.
Mercy Connect Ballarat/Bendigo | Coordinator: Clare Bennett
I joined Mercy Works in July 2020 after waiting out the first COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria. Having Donna Stewart hand over the role before starting was a great help. The lockdown presented both opportunities and challenges. It allowed me to better understand Mercy Connect and how the program works. Yet it also delayed growth of the program in Bendigo and communication with schools.
Now, my focus is on keeping volunteers engaged and updated. Sharing information about changes to schools’ policies and online professional development courses. Some volunteers have decided to delay returning to mentoring until 2021. Being in an ‘at risk’ category or having family with health issues are the biggest factors in these decisions.
Communication with schools has been harder this year with the pandemic. Though, there have been positive developments such as connecting with Ballarat Christian College. This will further the reach of Mercy Connect within the school. Increasing the number of students mentored and developing a program with the parents.
We look forward to re-engaging in a small capacity in Term Four and laying the groundwork for a great year ahead in 2021.
Mercy Connect Perth | Coordinator: Jennifer Davies
Across the north and south-eastern suburbs in Perth, Mercy Connect supports 22 schools. 62 volunteers were settling into their volunteering routines when schools had to close.
It wasn’t long before restrictions were dictating day to day life for everyone in the state. Being isolated from the major travel ports on the east coast, case numbers were easier to manage. This meant that the easing of measures began earlier than in other states.
Shortly after, the education department announced that schools could re-open to visitors. At the beginning of June, the Mercy Connect program dusted off and got back to making a difference.
Staying connected with our volunteers through email was a lifeline for the program. It allowed the sharing of information and continued connection to the outside world. This stream of information allowed our volunteers to decide when they would return. Many started as soon as they could while others chose to wait until they felt safe.
Mercy Connect was gearing up for another busy year but things changed. Only a few new volunteers were able to start volunteering in schools this year. The COVID-19 pandemic saw face-to-face learning shift to online learning. Lockdowns became normal and restrictions changed every part of normal life.
In most states, except for Victoria, it wasn’t until Term Two, that schools began returning to some normality. Schools remained cautious meaning that visitors like volunteers were not allowed to return. Victoria has been the hardest hit state in the country, with some schools still relying on remote learning.
This time apart fuelled creativity amongst our volunteers and schools to remain connected. New ways were found to mentor older high school students dealing with this disruption.
Keeping in touch has been a lifeline for the program. Coordinators have been sending regular updates on the return to school, reminding each volunteer that they are valued. Each coordinator is looking forward to their return when it is safe to do so.
Expressions of interest in joining the Mercy Connect program has continued. It is encouraging to see that the community is still looking for ways to give back and support those who need it.
If you or anyone you know is interested in volunteering with Mercy Connect, follow this link for more information: www.mercyworks.org.au/how-to-help/volunteer/
Published with collaboration from Mercy Works.