How the Berry Street School never gives up on vulnerable youth: Hannah's story

 

Many times throughout her childhood, Hannah* had cowered in a corner fearing for her life as her stepfather violently beat her mother. In many ways, 13-year-old Hannah had experienced a very similar life to many of the students who attend the Berry Street School.

When Hannah arrived at the Berry Street School for the first time, she was malnourished, couldn’t make eye contact and flinched when anyone approached her. Hannah’s first Berry Street teacher, Catherine, observed, “As a result of the abuse experienced, Hannah was a very traumatised young girl who didn’t seem to fit anywhere."

The Berry Street School has been created for the specific educational needs of children recovering from the trauma of neglect and abuse. Its staff are specialists and the curriculum unique. In short, Berry Street School gives its students what all children deserve: a chance for a future. Hannah’s experience meant she had a deep sense of mistrust of adults as up until this point, every adult in her life had let her down. She was loud and aggressive towards her Berry Street teachers, but in reality, Hannah had very little self-esteem and was scared.

Catherine recalled:

“We looked beyond her behaviour, encouraged her to find the positive within her and set out to reinforce that at every opportunity. We praised her and showed her respect until she slowly started to believe in herself. Most importantly, we let her know we would never let her down. No matter what might happen, we would always be there for her.”

Hannah had missed years of schooling. At first, she couldn’t even sit in a classroom, much less work in one. Helping her turn her life around would be a long, complex process.

As Hannah’s confidence grew and she spent more time in the classroom, she would experience small successes, possibly for the first time in her life, however challenges still existed for Hannah, and one day, she didn’t answer her daily 8am call to check on her.

For all of Berry Street School’s efforts, and for reasons only she would ever know, Hannah had left the school and was living on the street interstate. She was on her own and dealing with her emotions in her own way; however, Deb, Head of Student Support, and Catherine continued to reach out.

“Quite often we’d ring, and she’d just hang up. But she knew we were still there and we cared for her. We were never going to give up on her. We just hoped she’d never give up on herself,” said Deb.

After months away, and doing whatever she had to survive, Hannah returned to Berry Street School, seeing the persistence of her teachers and carers as a sign that she deserved love and attention and that they were people who could help her through her situation. After a lifetime of rejection, Hannah had found adults she could trust. People who accepted and respected her unconditionally and would never turn her away.

Hannah went from “a lost and broken” young woman to an eager student and a role model for younger students. She learned as much about herself and her emotional wellbeing as she did about English, numeracy and physical fitness. Hannah explains just how much the Berry Street School helped her.

"... Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to get an education, but more importantly for the friendships and support from the teachers. They were my strength when I was at my lowest and my cheer squad with my achievements. I always knew when things were bad that I could openly discuss any situation with my teachers without judgement or fear."

 

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*Name has been changed in the interest of privacy. The models and volunteers pictured are not connected to the case study.