Cheryl O'Donnell sees damaged, threatened, abused, forgotten, angry children in her role as the chief executive officer of the Police Citizens Youth Club in Canberra.
She never underestimates their pain. Because she was one of them.
A calm, organised, straight-talking powerhouse of woman, Cheryl lived through the horror of physical abuse, mental illness and alcoholism throughout her childhood in Goulburn. She was let down badly by the adults in her life, and that's something she sees again and again in the children.
"If you asked me about my memories as a kid, I can remember every dramatic thing that happened, but nothing good," she said.
Canberra PCYC has just moved from Fyshwick to new headquarters in a former air force hospital at Fairbairn. They have moved from a concrete jungle to a calm building surrounded by trees, grass and open space.
They have only been in for a fortnight but it already feels settled. Cheryl brought in antique furniture and blown up photographs she has taken herself to put in her office. She wanted it to feel like a home.
"This is going to be a calming place for these young people," she said.
It's here she tells the harrowing story of her childhood.
Her parents separated when she was six. She and her two sisters went with her father; her newborn brother stayed with their mother.
A new stepmother came into the picture and would beat Cheryl, lock her in a cupboard, throw boiling water at her. The stepmother felt Cheryl was her father's favourite and would attack her when she was angry with him.
After a short-lived stint in Queensland, her father dumped Cheryl and her sisters on the driveway of her mother's home when she was eight.
Her mother had a new partner and that home was never without chaos, affected by mental illness and alcoholism.
"I remember as a kid looking over at the next-door neighbours' [house] and the happy family, the kids being taught piano and the parents playing in the backyard, and craving to have that and wishing they were my parents," she said.
Cheryl would miss school caring for her siblings when her mother was hospitalised for months at a time. She says a school camp she attended when she was 12 was a turning point in her life and saw her empathy come to the fore. She was asked by the camp counsellors to befriend another girl who was not engaging with the group.
"When I started talking to her, it started to come out about her situation, about being sexually abused by her dad," she said.
"I think that's where I went, 'No matter what's happening to me, there's always someone worse off than you'. At 12, I did speak up and tell the counsellors and he was arrested."
Cheryl says she had always blamed herself for what was happening in her family and been waiting to be rescued from her situation. From then on, she decided to take charge of her life.
"My first job, I didn't care what it was, I was determined my life was going to be different and if I had a child, their life was going to be different," she said.
She started in a fruit and vegetable shop and over the years was Ford's first female service manager and owned a wrecking yard but also worked in the disability and unemployment sectors, her real passions because she always wanted to help people.
In 2016, she started at the PCYC which is all about helping kids at risk, intervening and showing them a different way.
She understands many of the kids act out and cause damage in the community, but she says there's "always a story about why".
She says Canberra PCYC has seen recidivism fall by more than 90 per cent as a result of its programs.
"Isn't that something worth investing in? You don't want to see them further down the track in the AMC," she said.
Cheryl, 58, happily married to Michael and with a son from her first marriage, says she has learnt to forgive.
She tells the kids their scars may fade, their memories may not. It's how they manage them that's important.
"Your past doesn't have to define your future."