“I’ve always worked with the marginalised,” says Cate Sydes. “I’ve always been drawn to kids and young people in need.”
BY Debra Vermeer*
In her work as CEO of Marist Youth Care, Cate Sydes says that above all else, she and her team strive to show their young charges that somebody believes in them, a life-changing gift she says she herself received from her Good Samaritan teachers when she was doing it tough as a teenager.
Growing up in Beecroft, northern Sydney as the fifth of six children, Cate first came into contact with the Good Samaritan Sisters at the age of five, when she started at St Agatha’s Primary School, Pennant Hills in Sydney. She then went on to high school at the nearby Mount St Benedict College, established by the Good Samaritan Sisters.
“The Good Sams have been a powerful influence on me,” she says. “They have been with me through some very significant events in my life and the support I got from that network has supported me through my life.”
Cate’s carefree young life was shattered in Year 8 when her father died from a heart attack. Then, just the year after she left school, and with a younger sister still at school, her mother was killed in a car accident.
“I will always be grateful for the support that I received from the Good Sams at that time, and that our family received, both emotionally and even financially,” she says.
“It was an awful time, a very difficult time, but as you reflect back on it, you do reflect upon resilience. And you ask, ‘what made me able to jump back from that’?
“And I’ve come to believe that it was because people valued me, and that’s something that the kids I work with today have never experienced before they come to us.”
After leaving school, Cate took up teaching, specialising in special education, before taking up a position at Mount Druitt in Sydney’s west, working with Aboriginal students who were facing long-term suspension from school.
With a Masters in Psychology, Cate then worked as a school counsellor in the south-western Sydney suburbs of Liverpool and Ashcroft, with “kids who had experienced a whole lot of abuse”, and then for several years at St Ignatius College, Riverview. Before taking on the CEO role at Marist Youth Care, she was at Wesley Mission, heading up their homeless program and national youth program.
“I’ve always worked with the marginalised,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to kids and young people in need.”
Cate says that her role at Marist Youth Care has been an experience of coming home.
“Coming to Marist was coming home to my Catholic faith. The ethos here, centred on the Marist ideals of relationships and serving dovetailed perfectly with my own beliefs, that strong relationships are so important,” she says.
Marist Youth Care has more than 100 years’ experience helping young people at risk in Australia and has developed into one of the largest service providers for youth at risk in the nation. It employs about 300 staff and volunteers, and cares for up to 1,000 young people and their families every year. A carefully developed ‘continuum of care’ model enables Marist Youth Care to offer a variety of out-of-home residential services as well as outreach and educational services.
Cate says the services and programs are varied, but include looking after young people who have been removed from their family; running a school for students who have previously walked away from schooling, often from a young age; operating restorative justice programs; and providing accommodation, care and support for asylum seeker families and unaccompanied minors.
“The bottom line of what we do is that we repair relationships with young people who have been marginalised in their life,” she says.
Marist Youth Care employs 40 Aboriginal staff and has a successful Aboriginal trainee program. In 2011 it re-established its Alkira Mums program, funded by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. This program is open to Aboriginal mothers living in Western Sydney. It provides free transport, support and training to Aboriginal mums seeking employment. The program provides mothers with vocational skills and training in a Certificate III in Hospitality with the goal of attaining employment. The women were also involved in a social enterprise activity of developing, marketing and selling a recipe booklet.
Cate says that while her job has its challenges and sadness, it is also a source of great joy.
“What I really like is seeing in young people’s eyes that they have hope because somebody believes in them,” she says.
“I learnt that in school. I have a number of people in my life that I can identify, who believed in me and those people made all the difference. With the kids I work with, the only thing that adults have ever done for them is to let them down.”
Not every young person who finds their way to Marist Youth Care will have a successful outcome, at least in the first instance, but Cate says they never give up on the people they serve.
“It’s about always leaving the door open,” she says. “It’s saying, ‘well, it didn’t work this time, but if you’re ready, come back to us’.”
On a personal level, Cate deals with the challenges and disappointments of the job by “keeping centred”.
“In this work you have to be very, very careful about asking, ‘is this their need or my need that I’m trying to fill?’” she says.
“So, it’s always about asking how can we make a difference to this person’s life? How is this intervention going to make a difference in their life?
“But of course we bring our life experience to any job and my motivator might be that I don’t want anyone to be left without.”
A team environment helps to share the load and forms the framework in which to experience both the highs and lows of working with young people at risk.
“The team is the most important factor,” Cate says. “They share your ups and downs and there is a great team here at Marist.
“I think that’s why I’m so comfortable in this organisation. It fits very tightly with my own spirituality and my Good Samaritan background, because the Good Samaritan was the person who went across the street and helped. And that’s what we’re about.”
Cate says the view sometimes expressed in public discourse that poverty is a result of poor choices, really raises her hackles.
“There is no life choice in ending up homeless,” she says. “No young person without a home has made that choice. Nobody.”
She says education is a crucial factor in providing a positive future for all young people.
“I was lucky. My education opened doors for me, gave me life-long friendships and support structures and stood me in good stead for what I’m doing now,” Cate says.
“Education is a key to unlocking the door for young people and if we don’t give them access to a good education, then we are failing them.
“This might sound like a cliché, but my dream is that one day I’ll be out of work, but at the rate we are going as a society, sadly I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both the Catholic and secular media.
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