A remarkable woman
"Professional beggar" ... Jessica Brown. Photo: Michelle Breen
Since the beginning of last century, International Women's Day has celebrated and recognised the invaluable contribution of women in our lives and in our society.
Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, colleagues, friends; wonderful women are all around us. Some are remarkable in the most modest of ways. It is their simple, gracious presence that deserves applaud. Others are more audacious in their achievements.
"It was the most horrible of circumstances and dealing with the grief of that is unexplainable."
Either way, it is an opportunity to pause for thought and consider the extraordinary women that live among us.
Jessica Brown accepts her award from Pru Goward and Barry O'Farrell at Parliament House in Sydney. Photo: Janie Barrett
Jessica Brown is one of these women.
The community hero woman of the year in the NSW 2013 Women of the Year awards, Jessica was also a 2011 NSW finalist for the prestigious Australian of the Year Awards and was the NSW face for the Commonwealth Bank's 2011 Launching Local Heroes program.
The journey to this point and the tragedy she has endured along the way has been unimaginable to the now 42-year-old.
Ten years ago, Brown was teaching music at a high school in Sydney's South West. It was an area where domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse as well as teen pregnancies were rife.
Getting students to turn up to school let alone graduate from it was considered an achievement.
But, despite having been a "nerd at school", Brown had a passion for "working with naughty kids".
Perhaps it was because she saw her students outside the stock-standard classroom environment.
"They would turn up to music practice but, would not turn up to school," she says. "Outside the classroom you have a different rapport."
Whatever it was, she saw that many of these so-called 'naughty kids' were struggling.
"A lot of kids weren't reaching their potential because their basic needs weren't being met," she says. "Rather than judging the behaviour, I looked at what was going on and often it was abuse [or neglect]."
So, she decided to unleash a little of the entrepreneurial spirit that was lying dormant within her and see if she could have an effect.
She began teaching casually, working at school by day and by night, she would retire to the "garden shed" where she was living to work on setting up a mentoring program for girls. Girls, who would eventually become mothers. "The aim was to address the core issues of the inter-generational continuation of a cycle," she says. "They were missing positive role models... They need to see there's another way."
In 2004, Brown, who was living off her credit card and using her teaching money to set up the program, got the much-needed funding green light and the Sister2Sister program was established in Sydney.
Over 300 girls have now been through the 12 month program, which matches troubled or disadvantaged girls aged 12 to 18 with a 'big sister' and also provides monthly workshops teaching life-skills, healthy eating, personal hygiene and sexual health.
Despite over 40 per cent of the girls involved in the program having attempted suicide, Brown has seen some remarkable transformations. One story that stands out is that of Molly*, who arrived in Australia from Sierra Leone, aged nine.
Molly's mother had died and she came to live with her father and his new wife. Mourning her mother and her home, Molly received little respite from the pain she was experiencing in her new home. She developed a chronic illness and spent extended periods of time in hospital. When she was not in hospital, her father beat her on a daily basis.
Eventually, Molly was removed and placed in care. At 14-years-old, she was recommended for the program by a case worker. She was matched with a girl named Kylie, who slowly enveloped Molly in the warm fold of her own family.
She has since been informally adopted by Kylie's family, who all recently travelled to the Gold Coast to celebrate Molly's 21st birthday.
"She's studying to be a nurse and... is doing really well," Brown says. This ongoing support, which around 95 per cent of the 'big sisters' continue to offer after the program has ended, helps girl's, like Molly, learn trust and to gently open after they have shut down.
The power of the support women can offer one another is something Jessica Brown has experienced herself.
Two years ago, her brother was fatally stabbed on Sydney's Northern Beaches. Not only was she trying to come to terms with that, but it took a hung jury and sitting through an excruciating second trial before the man who killed her brother was convicted. The whole period "was horrendous," Brown says. "It was the most horrible of circumstances and dealing with the grief of that is unexplainable."
Trying to stay strong for her parents, run a business and cope with her own grief took its toll. Her body broke down and she became unwell. "I was sleeping up to 20 hours a day," she recalls.
A "great network" of female friends rallied and her board director stepped in to take over much of the day-to-day running of Sister2Sister.
Slowly she has returned to the helm of the company, where she continues her work as a "professional beggar" fighting for funding so she can continue to help the girls and, hopefully, expand the program around Australia.
"It's very hard, but it's equally rewarding," she says. "If I have the power to be able to help change other people's lives then I'll keep doing it."
International Women's Day in Friday, March 8.
Sister2Sister runs off donations and does not currently receive government funding. To contribute, got to: Life Changing Experiences
*Not her real name