“I’ve seen their tears and I’ve heard their frustration.” Graham Toomey, the CEO of Gunawirra, an Aboriginal-led not-for-profit organisation, is describing the despair of mothers about the lack of health services for their children in Kempsey.
It is not uncommon for a child to wait two years for an appointment with a speech pathologist, if they receive an appointment at all. A high percentage of children consequently start Kindergarten without the language skills to be able to speak clearly with their teachers and friends, and this affects their learning as well as their friendships. “There just aren’t enough trained health professionals to service the needs of the community and we’re seeing what happens to our kids (without support),” says Graham. “They struggle in all areas of their lives.”
It is a crisis Gunawirra is working hard to address with its focus on “prevention through early intervention”. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal professionals work side-by-side for fundamental improvements in the life of families and their children. One of Gunawirra’s pivotal programs, Clinic on Country, centres on partnerships with 25 preschools in remote and regional areas of NSW.
In 2021, the Guyati, Garraka wa Witing program has taken shape and involves a collaboration between Gunawirra, Kempsey’s Dalaigur and Scribbly Gum Dalai Preschools, philanthropists Chris and Julie Vonwiller, and University of Newcastle speech pathology staff and fourth-year students. “I reached out to the University to ask if speech pathology was willing to work with us so students can spend some time in the pre-school to help the kids,” says Julie. “I’ve been speaking to the Elders and carers and there’s relief that the kids are finally getting the support they need,” adds Graham.
Guyati, Garraka wa Witing, which translates as “talk, mouth, and lips” in Dhunghatti, was launched in April 2021 at Dalaigur Pre-School in South Kempsey and so far, four University of Newcastle students have had placements. Funding support from the Vonwiller Foundation enables the students to cover the cost of accommodation and other essentials while they are away from home.
For Finlay Heilbuth and Anuja Mehta the experience has been personally and professionally profound. “It’s hard to put into words how much I’ve learnt and what an amazing opportunity it’s been,” says Finlay, 23. “I’ve never been on a placement before where holistic care is so important because without taking into consideration the child’s background there’s really no point in trying to do therapy with them. We’re getting to apply the knowledge we’ve learnt at uni about holistic care, client-centred care, and family-centred practice.”
The director of Dalaigur and Scribbly Gum Dalai Preschools, Debbie Swanson, has already seen the positive impact of the program on the 45 children who attend each day. “The need among our kids is huge,” she says. “They’re dealing with inter-generational trauma, family issues, health issues. This all affects their speech."
"To have the students here every day working with them means they’re getting support in an environment they feel safe in, and the families feel comfortable in."
Student Jane Eller, 26, was able to integrate therapy into the pre-school’s daily program and work with children one-on-one and in small groups. Exercises are presented as play activities, and this has encouraged children to participate. She has observed the positive impact the program is having.
“With one little boy I’m working with the focus has been on language. He didn’t want to participate at first because of the small group. He didn’t want to be seen to be needing extra help, but in getting him ready for school, it’s also important that he knows his role in that setting. I’ve worked with him on his listening skills, vocabulary, tenses, and pronouns. He has turned into Mr Helper. He has so much more confidence now that he can be understood. That’s what makes this work so worthwhile – when you can see a child express themselves. They are little steps, but they give the kids a boost.”
The benefit of the program is two-fold: children gain essential intervention, and the university students implement their training while learning about Aboriginal culture. All involved hope that this model will encourage students to consider working in Aboriginal health and in time address the desperate shortage of allied health professionals in regional areas such as Kempsey.
The students are all eager to get jobs in similar settings once they graduate. “I didn’t expect it to impact me as much as it did and change my perspective as much as it did,” observes Anuja of her placement at Dalaigur. “It’s changed the direction I want to go in my career.”
For Rebecca Beecham, a Dhanghatti mother of two, the program arrived too late to help her children, eight-year-Shaun, and six-year-old Kimarli-Lily, who have gone on to primary school without receiving much-needed treatment for hearing and speech issues. As president of the Dalaigur Pre-School and Children’s Services Aboriginal Corporation she is relieved that Guyati garraka wa witing will help other families. “Every child deserves the right to access essential services and if we can empower the kids and families, once they go to school, they won’t look back. They can have a future.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children suffer the highest reported rates of otitis media (middle ear infection) in the world, with, studies showing they are five times more likely to be diagnosed than non-Indigenous children. Left untreated, it can lead to permanent hearing loss and learning difficulties due to poor language development.
An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child will typically endure middle ear infections for at least 32 months, compared with three months for a non-Indigenous child, from age two to 20 years, according to the Australian Medical Association. The condition is more likely to become chronic in Aboriginal communities due to poverty, inter-generational trauma, overcrowded housing, and a mistrust of, or lack of access to, health services.
The peak professional body, Speech Pathology Australia (SPA), which represents about 70 per cent of speech pathologists, estimates that there are more than 1.1 million Australians with a communication disorder (around five per cent of the population). Those of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, and people who are socio‐economically disadvantaged, are over‐represented.
The University of Newcastle is proud to partner with Gunawirra, Dalaigur and Scribbly Gum Dalai Preschools and the Vonwiller Foundation to launch the Guyati, Garraka wa Witing program.