By Josh Gibbon
The old Mt Druitt Church of Christ and Childcare Centre that has laid vacant since 2020 is again fulfilling its purpose to support local families and children this year through its new tenants – a non-for-profit organisation called CommunityXchange.
CommunityXchange co-founder Fran McCarthy and her colleague Karen Isaacs had been searching last year for a building to start their pre-school learning centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
While out on a walk one afternoon, Fran happened across the vacant childcare centre at Mt Druitt and couldn’t believe her eyes. She immediately felt that this could be the place to begin building a dream that had grown over her career of multicultural and indigenous education.
She found a phone number on the building, called it, and got Matt Young, manager of Fresh Hope properties and projects.
Remembering this moment, Matt reflected, “I have worked in and around Mt Druitt for many years now. To hear how this centre could be established as the starting point of this amazing vision for an indigenous childcare centre and then a junior school – that excited me.
“The property was already fit for purpose apart from a good clean and paint. So, for Fran and her team to move in and establish reasonably quickly without the expense of a major refurbishment was appealing to all parties.
“This opportunity builds upon the history of Mt Druitt Church of Christ and their Child Care Centre, ministering since the 1970s in a very prominent building on one of the main thoroughfares. Our view is we must steward our assets for the generations ahead, so I see this as a significant win for the Mt Druitt Community.”
Fran’s heart and vision for this centre resonates deeply with the values of the Fresh Hope network’s ministries. She beams with excitement when she shares her vision to provide culturally informed, long-term education pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
“We are a pre-school, but we want it to really feel like a home,” Fran said. “My vision is in six months there will be elders here on this couch, aunties and uncles outside with the kids, and mothers inside breast-feeding their babies and doing their weaving.”
“It’s going to be a sacred space – a healing space,” she smiled.
Uncle Wes Marne (pictured above right) is a prominent and respected Biduginbul elder in the Mt Druitt community, and has just celebrated his 100th birthday. His voice has been influential in the shaping of CommunityXchange’s pre-school.
Originally, Fran and Karen were thinking of starting a high school, but when they met with the local area’s most influential elder, Uncle Wes Marne, to run their ideas past him, his feedback challenged them.
“He sat there nodding his head while we talked about our ideas. Finally, he said, “High school is too late. You’ve got to start sooner. There are children failing before they come to high school.”
Fran knew he was right because she had seen it for herself – children receiving intentional care for part of their education, then being lost in the cracks of the system when they transitioned.
The long-term goal of CommunityXchange is to develop a multi-staged learning pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, starting with this pre-school and then progressively opening a primary school, high school, and one day higher education.
Fran McCarthy (pictured above) is an experienced educator in multicultural and indigenous contexts. Her vision is to see Many Hands Pre-school and its future iterations be safe, healing spaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Fran’s Vision of a sacred, healing space
Fran’s philosophy of indigenous education developed over a career of putting her hand up to teach in the environments that other teachers run from.
From her experiences, Fran learned when it comes to nurturing students from indigenous cultures: “We have to teach differently.”
In recent years, Fran worked at Redfern Jarjum College. This primary school is specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, most of whom have experienced trauma at some level.
Here Fran learned how to hold these children who carry deep systemic pain.
She reflected, “How can you punish a child who is in so much pain, fear, stress and anxiety that when a person says, ‘I’m going to punish you,’ they say, ‘Are you? Show me what you’ve got.’”
Taking a different tact, Fran learned to look deeper than their behaviour and listen to their fragile hearts.
“It was just about listening to them and acknowledging that they are actually in pain,” she said. “And when they’re just beside themselves, saying, ‘I can see you’re beside yourself. I can see you’re really not coping, and that’s all right.’ It was just those simple, empathetic interactions that started to make the difference.”
From her five years of learning and teaching at Jarjum College, Fran found the key lesson in nurturing children from these communities was: “The importance of identity – that these kids can have purpose and hope.”
As Fran builds CommunityXchange’s first education experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, she brings this philosophy with her.
When Fran interviewed a mother interested in the learning centre earlier this year, she asked her, “Before we do anything, I want to know what you need. Why have you come?”
Fran anticipated the mother would talk about how she wanted her child to be educated according to their culture. Instead, she sighed and said, “You know, all I’d like is to know that my child is safe.”
For this reason, Fran wants to prioritise their pre-school being a safe and trauma-informed space.
Consequently, the old Mt. Druitt CoC building is receiving a facelift (pictured above) – colourful paint now coats the halls, Aboriginal art hugs the walls, and soft mats and rugs soften falls.
Fran wants to do away with enclosed spaces and locked doors that create a feeling of being trapped. She wants to build a fence for the adjoining paddock of grass that would lead children safely from the building into the wide-open yard, where they can run if they are feeling panicked.
She wants to build gardens for the kids to explore and beehives for them to tend to with native stingless bees. She wants this place to be a hub where local families can come and rest, play, and pass on their culture to the kids.
The success of this culturally-centred learning centre relies on the contribution of the local community. It’s the reason she wants to call their pre-school Many Hands, inspired by traditional Aboriginal art in which the whole community imprints their hand on a wall to symbolise their belonging.
Aboriginal artwork like this one (pictured above) that hangs on the pre-school’s wall symbolises each person’s belonging to a community and has inspired the pre-school’s name: Many Hands.
Many Hands now has 10 children enrolled, which is a huge win for Fran as she has patiently won the local elders’ confidence and support for the project. When the elders finally gave their support, she started getting phone calls from parents.
Fran now has a team of three Aboriginal staff caring for the kids with her, all of whom are also undertaking training in childcare.
The next battle for CommunityXchange will be securing government funding to make their vision a reality. This has been a slow and tedious process, and our network needs to pray that this gets across the line.
Despite the challenges of establishing a childcare centre – renovating a building, securing funding and building relationships with the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, Fran has enjoyed having her first children and their families attend Many Hands pre-school, which opened on 1 February.
She said, “When I turn up with my car, these little ones leap out of their houses, delighted to be here. They get to the door, screaming and giggling, and I think, ‘Yep, that’s why I’m doing it.’”
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