MAKE every opportunity count has long been a mantra for Mount Gambier teenager Jess, who is about to embark on her next journey studying a double degree at the University of South Australia.
It is the latest goal set by the 18-year-old who has been a high achiever in recent years, particularly in education, finishing Year 12 among Tenison Woods College’s top 2022 graduates with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of 97.85, receiving a Governor of SA Commendation Excellence award and participating in the UniSA Accelerate Program.
Her resume also includes launching popular custom keychain business WildHazelDesigns, which became an Etsy bestseller, as well as numerous volunteer roles, including at ac.care’s Mount Gambier Community Centre.
But while people may be familiar with Jess’ recent achievements, they may not be aware of the extra challenges she has faced as a young person to achieve her inspiring successes.
As she prepares to move to Adelaide for tertiary study, Jess has reflected on her journey through childhood and shared her story to mark World Care Day (February 17) in the hope it inspires other children living in care today to forge their own positive pathways in life.
It is an uplifting message of strength and hope that Jess admits she did not always believe in when spending her formative teenage years with various foster carers in the Geelong district under supervision of the Victorian Child Protection Service.
Living as a child in state care was a significant shift from her younger years spent in Queensland, where she was raised by her mother.
But Jess’ life changed when her family went through a challenging time that led to the intervention of child protection services and she was placed in kinship care with relatives.
“Because we didn’t have much family in the area, that became foster care,” Jess recalled, also sharing the stigma she faced as a child in care.
“People would take a different stance once they found out, probably because there is stigma and stereotypes.”
Jess said she was naïve about how her early experiences in her family home that became dysfunctional differed from her peers.
“I think when you grow up with it, you think not having food in the cupboard or trying to look for a job at the age of nine is normal,” she said.
“When you’re a young child, you should be able to be a child and experience those things and be able to fail and try again.”
She also acknowledges living in foster care at a young age took some adjustment.
“That nurturing side (shown by foster carers) was a foreign concept to me because I hadn’t had a parent figure at the time that provided that sort of care,” she said.
“It’s strange at first but then you realise this is what I should have experienced.”
She urged people to understand children in care do not choose their background or life circumstances and highlighted the transformational change foster carers can make in the life of a child.
“As a foster carer, you have the potential to change their future,” she said.
“Foster carers can really help in multiple aspects, even if that is just psychologically.
“I think providing a stable environment can completely change someone’s wellbeing – it sure did for me.”
Jess said prior to being placed in foster care, she experienced negative impacts from a period of instability, with a constant feeling of never knowing what was going to happen next.
“Foster care is being able to provide that stability and it means that foster children really have a chance to focus on the things in their life that they should as a child,” she said.
“It means they can go to school and make friends without worrying about their home life.”
The support of carers proved invaluable to Jess when she moved to Mount Gambier around three years ago and she wasted no time in maximising the opportunities that were presented.
That led to the then-16-year-old starting work as a youth art teacher, as well as taking on a hospitality job, while balancing her study and launching WildHazelDesigns, partly formed through the creation of personalised keyrings for young people in the care of the Department for Child Protection.
“I saw that I could use the opportunities and the experiences that I had faced to keep moving forward and try new things and make growth a positive in my life,” she said.
“Even if you are in care, you have the potential to create your own path, to create your own future.
“Aim for your goals, even if you think they are not possible, because you will be surprised at what you can achieve.”
As she prepares to move to Adelaide to start studying a double degree in Psychology (Cognitive Neuroscience) and Business Marketing, Jess reflected on her past and the people and experiences that shaped her.
“I’ve written messages to people that have helped me, whether that be schoolteachers or foster carers, because you really just take a step back and realise that was a really significant person in my life,” she said.
“You realise the positive effects that they had, even though it might have seemed so minor at the time, and how it is just the little things that can really change your trajectory as a young person.”
More foster carers are needed in the Limestone Coast.
If you have space in your heart and home to make a difference in the life of a child, visit this page, email email@example.com or call 1300 ACCARE.