Monday, September 4, 2017

Life Matters: Linking Personal Growth to Action

Marlous TehA chance encounter through a Google search brought Marlous Teh to her first Life Matters workshop. ‘I was involved in Rotaract Club at uni, and I’d been researching personal development programmes that might be helpful for our members,’ Marlous recalls of that day in 2014. Her search brought up a listing for Life Matters, from the Initiatives of Change Australia website. She rang the phone number listed, and spoke with facilitator Rob Wood. ‘It was clear from my conversation with Rob that Life Matters would personally benefit me and help with my personal growth,’ she said.

While she had attended personal development workshops through Rotaract before, Life Matters, as it turned out, was a different experience. 'It was interesting that it was an inter-generational gathering, for a start,' said Marlous. 'It showed that we can learn from those who are not our peers. I’d attended leadership development courses before; Life Matters was different - quieter, more reflective.'

She also found the programme had a real impact. “When I attended, I lacked confidence and direction,” she said. “Life Matters brought some of that clarity. It helped me be more open, more embracing of different people in my life. Some of the fears that I had were taken away.”

The workshop that Marlous attended in 2014 was one of several that take place around Australia and abroad each year, supported by Initiatives of Change Australia. Usually organised as a multi-day residential workshop, Life Matters brings small groups of 10 to 20 people together in a series of encounter sessions with peers and mentors. The aim of the workshops is to help participants reflect on their personal values, and to make decisions about how they will use their unique experiences and capabilities to make the world a better place.

Life Matters is more than a personal development course, in that it makes a clear link to taking follow-up action. During the course weekend, participants are introduced to potential mentors, who arrange follow-up meetings with them individually. Some of pairings have turned into lifelong friendships, and participants continue to be supported by a community of practice, to the extent that they want. They are also invited to ongoing events and alerted of opportunities to be involved in cause-related initiatives and programmes. The course facilitators come from all walks of life, many from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. Some, such as co-facilitators Rob and Cheryl Wood, have devoted their lives to being change-makers themselves, supporting many others in their life journeys through friendship and practical support through the IofC network.

The most recent round of Life Matters ran in August 2017 in the hills of Bogor, Indonesia, with participants from around Southeast Asia. In Australia, the most recent Life Matters course took place over the weekend of 21-23 July 2017 at a Uniting Church conference centre, Chittick Lodge, in the coastal town of Gerringong, New South Wales.

Life matters Workshop 2017University lecturer Prasanthi Hagare was one of the IofC team that supported the Gerringong workshop, in collaboration with SydWest Multicultural Services, the Police-Citizens Youth Club, and the Blacktown New South Wales Police. Eleven young people took part. ‘Our time included open sharing of experiences, “quiet time,” and exploring often difficult topics of identity, relationships and forgiveness,' said Prasanthi. ‘The sharing was rich, raw and honest. It gave permission to the participants to honestly look at their relationships and decided on aspects that they could work on to address and resolve conflict in their lives.’ In between the discussion sessions, there was time for fun, laughter and enjoyment, as participants went on cliff walks, played basketball, and organised a night of entertainment on the Saturday evening. At the end of the weekend, Gary Merryweather, Commander of Blacktown Police, drove down to hand out certificates of participation to all who took part.

Some Life Matters alumni have gone on to become well-known in their fields. One of them is former child soldier and refugee to Australia, David Vincent, who became well-known to many Australians through his work with the South Sudan diaspora community and his book, ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die.’ Another is Afghan refugee Naz Nazir, who has been recognized by the Victorian state government for his work in establishing the Afghan-Australian Initiative to promote friendship among the different Afghan communities and their Australian neighbours. Yarrie Bangura, who co-starred in the film ‘The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe’, which tells the story of her experiences as a refugee from Sierra Leone and sexual violence survivor, called Life Matters, ‘…one of the best programs I’ve ever attended…It’s a life-changing and eye-opener program. I feel so blessed to have been part of it twice!’

At the Gerringong weekend, Marlous was one of several former Life Matters participants who returned as a co-facilitator. Another coincidence (one of the other facilitators had dropped out at the last minute) had brought her, in one sense, full circle. ‘'It was great working with the team,' she said. 'And now there’s all the more reason to keep in touch.' To enable this, participants have organised a Facebook group, and Marlous is coordinating a reunion in November 2017. Reflecting on the Gerringong weekend, she wrote, ‘This is what I learned…it’s the stories that set us apart, that bring us closer to each other. It’s in the depths and diversity of other people’s stories where we find richness in our own lives. It’s in the embrace of our differences where our common humanity resides.’ – Delia Paul

  • Originally designed for an 18 to 35-year-old cohort, Life Matters is now offered to participants beyond this age group, in a related stream called ‘Life Still Matters!’ The next 'Life Still Matters' course will run from 3-6 November 2017 in Melbourne.

  • For more information about Life Matters, see the programme information here: http://au.iofc.org/life-matters-course or contact the facilitators: rob.wood@iofc.org in Melbourne, fraserjm@optus.net.com.au or Assefa Bekele, 0412-699-904 in Sydney.

Images courtesy of Marlous Teh