As Catherine Cresswell explored the works and ministries of the Good Samaritan Sisters before applying for the position of Executive Director with the Good Samaritan Foundation, she began to feel at home.
By Debra Vermeer*
Newly appointed Executive Director of the Good Samaritan Foundation, Catherine Cresswell, says she has been fortunate to have followed her passions and her desire to make a positive impact during a wide-ranging career which has seen her not only take on senior roles in media and community organisations, but also produce talking books for the blind, teach drama to disadvantaged kids and co-create award winning documentary films.
“I like to really immerse myself in what I do,” she says.
“It’s great to work on projects that have real value and a positive impact on people’s lives. That’s how I feel about the work here at the Good Sams, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work in other roles that have had that sort of impact as well.”
The Good Samaritan Foundation was established in 1999 to provide ongoing finances and resources to support the ministries established by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
Catherine, who grew up attending St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Manly and now identifies as being a part of the Quakers, says that as she explored the works and ministries of the Good Sams before applying for the position with the Good Samaritan Foundation, she began to feel at home.
“I felt a strong connection with their work and my own spiritual beliefs,” she says. “Particularly when I saw that the issues around creation and the environment, and peace and non-violence, were such a key part of what the Good Sams did, I found that really matched with my own beliefs and sense of what is important in the world.”
Catherine, who was born in Manly and grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches, says her interest in social justice was instilled in her by her parents.
“My Dad was very passionate about social justice and was active in campaigning on a number of issues. He was a great story-teller and listener and would strike up a conversation with anyone. As he was a shift-worker, that often included the homeless. Then he would come home and recount their stories,” she says.
As a teenager, Catherine became drawn to drama and story-telling.
“I started out teaching on a voluntary basis at PACT Youth Theatre in Sussex Street, Sydney, while I was still at school and then I was hired by them to take drama programs out to disadvantaged areas of Sydney,” she says.
“So that was a really great opportunity. It allowed me to see first-hand the challenges some of these kids were facing. Many of them weren’t much younger than me, but they’d had very different experiences.”
After leaving school, Catherine studied for a BA in Theatre at the University of Western Sydney, and later earned a Masters in Communication Management at the University of Technology and completed further courses in not-for-profit management and governance.
Her first full-time job was producing talking books for blind children at the Royal Blind Society, one of which won the Talking Book of the Year award. She was then asked to establish a social enterprise for the Society, producing audio material for external clients.
From there, Catherine joined SBS, taking on the role of Marketing Manager for SBS Radio, which included producing radio campaigns in more than 20 languages. Later, she ran an advertising agency which specialised in multicultural communications.
Throughout this time, Catherine was also working with her husband on documentary films which were broadcast on the ABC and SBS. The first documentary was the result of an overheard conversation on a bus.
“When I was working at the Royal Blind Society I was sitting on the bus one day behind a woman who turned out to be deaf and blind and couldn’t speak, but she had just got back from a trip all round the world,” says Catherine.”
“And she was talking through the use of tactile sign language to a blind lady, who was talking out aloud to the rest of us, saying, ‘Oh, she’s just got back from America, she’s done this, she’s done that’. And I was thinking, ‘isn’t this incredible?’
“So I became really interested in how that would be possible. And my husband, who’s a graduate of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and I, ended up making a documentary film about another man, Billie Sinclair, who was also deaf, blind and unable to speak and also a world traveller. That film won many awards, and was screened on the ABC and around the world. As part of that process I learned how to tactile sign, which was how we would communicate with Billie.”
The pair have gone on to make other documentary films, including an ABC film about the inhumanity of torture and another, award-winning film, about an elderly Chinese couple who were living in obscurity in Brisbane, but who were considered National Living Treasures in China.
“They’d each spent many years in solitary confinement during the Cultural Revolution and had basically been forced to leave China following Tiananmen Square,” Catherine says. “So we made a film where we took them back to China and we recreated the events of their life. The finished film was screened on SBS and also at the Cannes Film Festival.”
More recently, the couple has made a documentary on ethical investment and in 2013, Catherine collaborated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander radio stations to produce a four-part radio series on hearing issues in these communities. All of the documentary films had to be funded from scratch, a reality that Catherine says prompted a search for partners in the community who shared the vision and the passion for the issues and were prepared to back that up with funding.
“Most of the documentary work was done while I was also working full-time or raising two young children,” Catherine laughs. “But if you’re passionate enough about something, you’ll find a way.”
Before coming to the role at the Good Samaritan Foundation, Catherine also held the positions of Channel Manager for the Pay TV channel World Movies, Manager of Public Engagement for Greenpeace Australia and Pacific, and more recently, as Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Public Education Foundation, which raises funds to distribute as scholarships to help needy students in public schools.
Catherine says since joining the Good Sams Foundation, she has been engaged in information gathering and familiarising herself with the many works and ministries of the Good Samaritan Sisters.
“I’m making sure we have the structures in place that will allow us to raise funds from a wide range of sources and distribute to the full range of activities we want to support,” she says. “At the same time I’m looking at grant opportunities that we can apply for to secure funds for existing activities.”
Last month, the Good Samaritan Foundation presented seven senior secondary school students with scholarships to cover, in full or in part, their tuition costs for Years 11 and 12 at a Good Samaritan College.
Other key projects previously funded by the Foundation include supporting the work of The Inn in Melbourne, which provides safe accommodation to women and children escaping domestic violence and Good Samaritan Housing in Brisbane, which provides accommodation for young homeless mums and children. Catherine says she would also like to explore ways to further support the Good Sams’ work with refugees and asylum seekers, with those caught in the net of human trafficking, and on care of creation.
“We’re putting together the building blocks so this Foundation can have a really strong future in terms of fundraising and also in terms of supporting projects and works of the Good Samaritan Sisters,” Catherine says.
“We’re building something that can have longevity and a lasting impact into the future.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.
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