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On being a duck


As a kid I was given the nickname ‘Duck’ by my mum. I was her little duck.

the young familyThat’s me, in my mum’s arms, with my sisters Judy and Barbara and Granny!

The name caught on in primary school, and with a surname like McDonald morphed into “Donald Duck” then over time back to  “Duck”.  Duck stuck till I left high school and Wangaratta, at 18.  If anyone calls me “Duck” I know they’re from Wang!

This week a friend gifted me the realisation that Duck was actually a very apt nickname. For like a duck I can seem calm on the surface when underneath I’m paddling madly!  I may be a more composed duck now I’m older, but I’m still a duck. No doubt about it! Once a duck, always a duck!

Now I’m a Mumma Duck, and today with my two little ducks, Zac and Bianca, we will swim in our fourth annual YMCA Swimathon, along with around 1,500 swimmers across Australia, in an event I have worked on in various leadership roles in this time.

It might be Zac’s last year though – he’s almost 13 now and rebelling like any good teenager! I confess – I incentivise him with $10 out of my pocket for every $100 he raises. He’s heading for $40 this year!  And he’s still saying he might get in the pool “but I can’t make him swim”.  We’ll see…I can be a tough Mumma Duck!

All Swimathon swimmers are not just swimming but also actively raising funds to support people with disabilities in their local communities.   I am a proud Mumma Duck thinking about everyone we  already support, can potentially support, and everyone across Australia swimming their laps, shaking their tins, all working towards the same goal, on the same day.  Finally, I also am thinking of everyone I have worked on this event with – many have now moved on, but I hope they’re a feeling proud, today, too. Big proud quacks and thanks to all!

Each year  as a family we have steadily grown our funds raised, from $725 in 2012, to $1305 in 2014 and $2,200 in 2014.   As a family this year we have raised almost $3,000! Thanks to support from lots of wonderful individual donors, and in the last two years with the added fun of an annual fundraising event with girl friends.

Just as each year the event overall has steadily grown from raising $110,000 in year one, $210,000 in year two, $230,000 in year three… this year we are steadily heading towards our national goal of $250,000, to support at least 1600 people with disabilities.

By 2017 we want to double that and raise $500,000.  I’m confident we’ll get there, and that in 10 years’ time, we’ll be a high profile event on every swimmer’s calendar, with several key sponsors, supporting thousands of Australians. And our event will be a true partnership with those we seek to benefit.

Swimathon 2014 thank you from Zac, Di and Bianca For the last two years we have swum at Aquarena, YMCA Manningham. Here we are after last year’s event, thanking all our wonderful supporters! Zac in his own t-shirt design.

My parents, and Mum in particular, were heavily engaged in their local community, helping build the Killawarra Tennis Club and courts (no longer there) and the Wangaratta Hard Courts (still there!), through fundraising, organising and connecting people together around a shared cause.

And this year as I reflect on this event, and my role in it, and having lost Dad recently and Mum 13 years ago, I realise how much I have absorbed of my parents’ values.   It makes me happy that I too have been actively helping create opportunities for people to participate in sporting activities.  Outside of work, I’m also on our community’s inaugural netball club committee.

This year I also miss both my mum and my dad deeply and profoundly.  On the surface,  I’m functioning, I’m doing well, nothing to complain about really, but underneath runs a river of sadness.  Once a duck, always a duck.

However, on the brighter side – ducks can swim! And lucky duck I was, I had the chance to learn as a kid (a pool at my public primary school!) and friends with pools (Thanks Kenzos!), as well as rivers and public pools to swim in.  I am a lucky duck in so many ways.  Too many kids today don’t get this chance, and if you have a disability, it can be even harder to get a fair go.  At the Y we want everyone to have the opportunity to be healthy, happy and connected – and the YMCA Swimathon is one way we seek to achieve our vision.

So heartfelt thanks from this little duck to everyone who has supported our YMCA Swimathon journey, this year, or in previous years.  I’ll be thinking of you all, as I paddle along happily, with my little ducks, and all the other ducks in the pool at YMCA Derrimut or any one of the other 65 pools splashing out for this great cause. maddy kayla and di

Maddy and Kayla Parker are two little ducks who will also be swimming at YMCA Derrimut today.  In fact, they’re the reason why I’m swimming here.  Two amazing girls who have much to overcome just to swim, who have already learned that giving back where you can, is good. And look how our event branding has changed this year! More color and fun to convey the contagious happiness experience we want everyone to have!  You can sponsor Maddy and Kayla here.

You can still sponsor me here

Sponsor Zac here

Sponsor Bianca here

Quack, quack!

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A new career chapter with a ‘young at heart’ organisation


Tomorrow I embark on the next chapter of my career.

I take up my first executive management role – in my mid 40s. Exciting!

I did run my own small business for 11 years, so in some ways I’ve been ‘at the table’ (sometimes quite literally the kitchen table!) before.

And I like to think I’ve ‘been the table’ on many critical occasions – both professionally and personally – using the wisdom and experience accumulated along life’s crooked path to provide insight and advice.

However, this is definitely a step up and I’m both excited and a little nervous – mostly excited.

Since I ran my own business I’ve grown personally – getting married, losing my mum, having a family, navigating kids through early years of pre-school and interventions and successfully off to school, enduring an agonizing ‘builder going broke’ renovation: the whole wild, mad, crazy juggle of it all.

And I’ve grown professionally: learning how to be effective and have impact inside a complex, growing, dynamic, not for profit.

From a relatively junior part-time two day a week ‘toe back in the water’ role with YMCA Victoria post parenthood when my confidence and ambitions were small (the shock of parenthood can do that to some), over time I was able to gradually navigate a path to management as my children grew, I grew and the YMCA grew.

Not surprisingly to anyone who’s followed my blog or regular tweets, I haven’t flown far.

I’m still with the YMCA, only with the national office at YMCA Australia.

My career journey with the Y strikes me as the essence of what the YMCA stands for.

In my time with the Y, I’ve been empowered to grow, to lead, to shine – and along the way I’ve tried to light the leadership fire in others, both young and young at heart.

Globally, ‘the Y’ may be over 160 years old, but it’s definitely young at heart, constantly evolving with the times to remains relevant to local communities and having social impact in 119 countries.

This Saturday the YMCA is aiming to create a world record, aiming to have 5 million people taking part in the YMCA World Challenge – a basketball activity event.

I’ll be at one of the 30 YMCA managed centres hosting an event in Melbourne, throwing a few hoops at a ring, enjoying being part of something inspiring taking part right across the globe from Africa and Asia to Europe and the United States.

Think I’m going to enjoy the new gig!

Follow me @DiFromTheY and @YMCAAustralia

My daughter Bianca and her friends Samson and Daniel, getting ready for the YMCA World Challenge on Saturday 13 October.

From Psychologist to CEO


As the eldest of five, Mandy Burns is quite possibly a ‘natural born’ leader, used to responsibility, authority and taking charge of groups.  

At just 37, Mandy was promoted to the position of Chief Executive Officer with the Ardoch Youth Foundation, to lead this not-for-profit committed to changing the odds for disadvantaged children by removing barriers to education that poverty and disadvantage create. 

 She reckons she naturally does better and prefers working in groups – and she should   know: Mandy’s first career was as a psychologist, counselling people injured at work.

“In broad terms I was interested in working as a psychologist to help people and really liked understanding the link between people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours,” she says of her first career.

But it was volunteering in the community sector while at university – working first with young people, then later on the not for profit boards that ran the programs – that really inspired Mandy’s vision for her future.

So after three years as a psychologist she quit to seek work with children and young people that aligned with her strong social justice values. 

Engage in a conversation with Mandy about working with schools to support all of their children, especially those experiencing disadvantage, and you’ll be left in no doubt whatsoever about these values.

In 1997 she took on her first role with the Ardoch Foundation as a volunteer, steadily progressing her way through the organisation to the role of CEO in 2008.  

“Becoming CEO was exhilarating, inspiring and terrifying. I was proud to be the CEO of Ardoch and to be leading our work in removing the barriers to education for vulnerable children- I also never felt so much weight and desire make a difference.”

Like most of us who work for not for profits, Mandy wants to “change the world”.  And the world she is hoping to create is one in which “poverty is not a determinant in Australian children’s educational opportunities and outcomes”.

It’s a role that’s both hugely rewarding and hugely challenging in a public climate where there is really no such thing, Mandy points out, as “free education”.

Raising a daughter, Maddy, seven, in a community with a huge disparity between those well off and those struggling, heightens her awareness need for organisations like Ardoch to be part of the “village that helps to raise a child”.

“I love seeing the great generosity and compassion that exists in our community when people commit to helping kids, volunteering to help them to read, caring and being a role model, donating food or toiletries, excursions and books to lessen the impact of poverty,“ she says, adding that it’s a pleasure to work with people who share her passion and the challenge of inspiring more people to make a difference.

Mandy’s advice to anyone looking to a career-change is to “make choices based on what makes you happy and be true to your values”.

“If you do this you will find alignment between where you work and what you believe is important.

“Hold this vision even if you do not know how you are going to get there or what the job is because over time you will find yourself doing more of what is important to you.”

  • Find out more about Ardoch’s work in the community at www.ardoch.asn.au and support Ardoch’s current Literacy Campaign to improve children’s reading and writing in disadvantaged communities – in the National Year of Reading 2012, there has never been a more relevant time to support this important work. You can help to remove the barriers to education that poverty and disadvantage create to learning and literacy, by donating to Ardoch Youth Foundation today Contact 9537 2414 for further details on donating or volunteering.

My son Zac: A parent’s journey with Aspergers


Just over nine years ago I became a parent for the first time.

It was a difficult birth but when I eventually woke up properly, it was instant love. We had a gorgeous baby boy and we were thrilled.

But Zac wasn’t an easy baby. He slept a lot, but when he was awake he was often unhappy. Grizzly, crying. Shrieking. He didn’t like loud noises, cafes, or bright lights. He liked constant movement. He was the most challenging baby in my mother’s group. He didn’t take to food when all of the other babies did, so I kept on breastfeeding until he was 19 months old, trying to give him some goodness.

His speech seemed delayed too. He was the kid who was always doing something wrong – fighting with other kids, having meltdowns, walking in the opposite direction to everyone else. He was always the kid by himself at the park, collecting trash and treasure and filling his pockets.

Eventually, at four, we had him assessed. I sensed something wasn’t quite right, but I still thought it might be because we were anxious first-time older parents.

I remember being shocked – but also a bit relieved – when a psychologist sat us down after three sessions and said, no beating around the bush:

“Zac has Asperger Syndrome, and moderate to severe Aspergers, at that.”

Our world came crashing down. I’d harboured a secret suspicion about Autism, but still I didn’t want to believe it. My husband didn’t want to believe it. “He’s just like I was as a child,” he argued. “Labelling is not going to help him.”

Actually, it did help us enormously. It helped us access more support. It helped us understand our son better. We did years of early intervention, which cost us a fortune, and was difficult to fit in as a family, but which made all the difference.

Today Zac is a unique – wonderfully unique –  nine year old, supported at his local public primary school by a part-time integration aide. He’s doing gymnastics (again with extra support), keyboard, and swimming lessons (more about that later) and he reads and navigates the computer like a whiz. Now, he’s more at the centre of his classroom rather than on the outskirts. 

When Zac was seven, he came across a DVD about Asperger Syndrome. He wanted to know what it was, and wouldn’t be put off. “This is it,” I thought. “This is the moment when I tell my son.” I took a deep breath. If anyone saw the episode of Parenthood  where the parents tell their son Max that he has Aspergers…I did a whole lot better than they did on their first attempt!

I said: “Zac, Aspergers is part of the Autistic Spectrum. People with Aspergers often have amazing brains – they’re just wired a little differently. And they can do some amazing things with their brains, like invent things like Thomas Edison who invented the light bulb, and they often start to read early. And they usually have a special interest that nobody else does.  But because of their brain they may also struggle with some things, like making friends. Like loud noises, or tastes and smells, and they may be a bit clumsy so they’re not usually good at sport.”

Zac looked at me intently, quivering with excitement, and said: “Mummy, mummy! I think I have Asperger Syndrome!”

And I was able to give him a big high five and say, just as excitedly: “Yes Zac, that’s right, you DO have Asperger Syndrome”.

Life hasn’t been easy for Zac. And it’s not always easy for us, as his parents, or for Bianca, his younger sister. He requires more support than you or I to get involved in things many of us take for granted.

Late last year we were at a friend’s house, who has a swimming pool. There were heaps of kids there, in and out of the pool. But not Zac. Couldn’t even get him near it. And Bianca was hanging onto the edges, too.

You see, Zac got kicked out of his swimming lessons when he was six. He kept clashing with another kid. And because Zac got kicked out, Bianca missed out too.

It was after that afternoon at the friend’s pool, that I got my kids into aquatic education at Kensington Community Recreation Centre. Megan organised individual lessons for Zac, as part of their wonderful special needs program, and found another time for Bianca who fitted nicely into a group of same-aged kids.

Bec and Erin are the wonderful young aquatic education teachers who have each worked with Zac. He LOVES his lessons, and it’s simply amazing to me to see his progress each week.

Bianca, too, is shining…..

Next summer when we take our kids to the pool, or the beach, we’ll all be able to enjoy ourselves a whole lot more, confident that our kids are acquiring the life skills they need to enjoy themselves and be safe around water.

And this is what the YMCA does best. We provide opportunities for everyone. And we recognise that some members of our community who are doing it tough need extra support in order to be able to participate. And we raise funds for this.

I’m proud to work for the Y, and every one of you should know that you truly make a difference, no matter what your role is. We all help people, families and communities become stronger. If we’re stronger, we’re better friends, better parents, better employees, better members of our community.

That’s why it’s important that we continue to find ways to raise funds so that the thousands of Victorians who are currently unable to participate due to their disability, income or cultural background, are given the opportunity. We have supported 12,000 people over the past four years through YMCA Open Doors. Think about the ripple effects of that! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The power of team to transform


On Friday I joined a team of parents from our local school community to help clean up a house. In this house lives a single mum with her four children, aged 17, 8, 6 and 3.

We’d been urged by the school parent who took it upon herself to coordinate the “Operation” to “leave our judgements at the front door”.

To describe the house as a mess is a chronic understatement. It was a job that needed a team response – and a big team, at that.

I could read the responses on people’s faces, but heard no judgemental words.  The team just quietly and efficiently got down to the massive job at hand, room by room. On each parent’s face was a determination to turning the house into a home. Over the course of the day around up to 30 families directly contributed, while more still had made donations of goods and cash – adding much needed energy to the occasion.

The mum, her 17 year old and her 3 year old bravely participated in the clean up. Letting us in had not been easy. It had taken months of persuasion by the organiser.  The 17 year old stayed in his room for a couple of hours before eventually coming downstairs and participating.

I wasn’t there at the day’s end, but those who were said the responses of the mum and children to their new home was priceless.  For the first time, everyone in the family had beds to sleep in.  All who took part got a huge buzz from the experience, too. It’s a cliche, but it’s good to give, and giving with others has a particular strength.  I know I’ll always feel a connection with those who were there, too.

Intergenerational poverty lies at the root of this story. Breaking the cycle won’t be easy, and those who participated in yesterday’s cleanup are under no illusions that “everything has changed”.  It’s our collective hope, however, that the effort provides this family with a fresh start, as well as the knowledge that they are cared for by others in their community.

A door between those in our community who “have” and those who don’t have much has also been opened. Let’s hope more of us can  find a meeting place somewhere in the middle for the sake of the children – and for those in our school community in similar situations –  but for the sake of all of us, really.

Young people are ace – a good news story


Check out this new 30 second video created entirely by volunteers, and from the energy of young people.  It’s message: Stand up, Talk Hard, Be Heard. That’s the theme of this year’s Youth Parliament now in is 25th year, and it’s an apt tag line for the young people behind the scenes who are making sure this year’s event helps showcase the best our young people have to offer.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of my job is that I get to work and interact with lots of young people, both in my direct team and across the wider YMCA.  With so much negativity in the traditional media about young people, it’s nice to know there’s a different reality.  I can vouch for it:  the young people I know are all ace.

In my private life, I see how wonderful are the young teachers at my children’s primary school and also swim centre: eager to learn and benefit, receptive to feedback and accepting of difference.   My 8 year old son Zac, who has Asperger’s Syndrome – on the autistic spectrum – is also benefiting enormously from the support of a 14 year old assistant in his first attempts at group gymnastics at the local not-for-profit community gymnastics club.  Each week lovely young girls hold out their hands to Zac and coax him from the edges of the class into the centre.  Anyone who has a child with a disability will understand how fantastic it is to be finally watching him joining in, enjoying himself, and being part of a group.

Community groups like this local gymnastics club, and programs like Youth Parliament give our young people a chance to shine, to develop and to have a real impact on the future of their community. Over the past five years I have witnessed the remarkable growth in many of the young volunteers who helped bring this video together.  Please share it with your networks to ensure that any young people you know between 16 and 25 increase both their chance to shine, and the community’s, too.

For more info visit http://www.victoria.ymca.org.au/youthparliament.

Water safety messages not cutting through


At a time when floods are wreaking havoc across Queensland and Victoria  it may seem unsympathetic  to be talking about water safety.

However as a parent and a communications specialist I’ve been following the news this summer with a particular sense of dread. This dread has only been heightened by the unpredictability of  the flood waters and the public’s varying response to it. My fear: When will the next drowing occur?

Experts agree it’s already an awful summer for aquatic incidents.  Despite regular messages and pleas from authorities including Life Saving Victoria and the State Emergency Service, too many Australians have already died.  And that’s not including those who didn’t stand a chance in the devastating Queensland floods.

Toddlers have drowned and nearly drowned in backyard pools. Grownups have been caught in ocean rips and disappeared in rivers.  Last year 314 people drowned in Australia. This year’s toll could be even higher.

My dread – and sense of responsibility – comes from five years working for an organisation that promotes water safety as part of its vision for creating stronger families and communities.

This knowledge has been deepened by my own experience of one of my children getting into trouble in a public swimming pool while I was just metres away. At the time I was trying to supervise both a three year old and a five year old. And here’s the dangerous part ­- all while continuing to hold a conversation with a friend.

Luckily my daughter, though shocked, was fine. At seven she still recalls the experience vividly.  It served to wake me up in a way that the constant messages I’d been both sharing and receiving via work and the media had failed to cut through.

I now know in my bones that you can’t afford to be complacent around water.  You can’t rely on lifeguards or others nearby. You have to actively watch your children, no matter how much you’d rather be talking to a friend, reading a book or living the life you had before children.

You have to be ready to spring into action and know how to help them get them out of trouble in all aquatic environments – currents, ocean rips, rivers with murky depth – flood waters.

You want to be sure that as they grow into teenagers and young adults, this knowledge will be so instinctive in your child that you’re never likely to have police knocking on your door with earth-shattering news.

In a land surrounded by sea and peppered with swimming pools and inland rivers, lakes and dams – that at present seem to be merging –  we have to do better as a nation. We have to provide all children with swimming and water safety lessons that do more than just teach them how to swim laps, with correct stroke techniques.

It’s only by ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn both how to swim and how to be safer around water that we can prevent further tragedies.  And until they’re at least ten – yes ten – and you’re completely confident in their capabilities, you have to watch them like a hawk, from no more than an arms-length. Even at a public pool.  And, yes, around flood waters, too.

All families need a break, sometimes…


Last week as I sat in the waiting room of Sensational Kids, in Ormond, where my son has regular interventions, I was almost overwhelmed by the intensity of the needs in the room. The needs of the kids (mostly pre-school aged); the less obvious needs of the parents, all doing our best to get our children the support they need. Not so long ago, I’d been them; was still them, just a little further down the track. Who’s supporting us – the parents – while our kids get the input they need? When we grapple with what’s required of us to implement the changes and strategies recommended by the endless rounds of (costly) experts to unlock our children from their individual barriers?

I’m lucky to work for an organisation – the YMCA – that really does care for families, and that provides real and practical support.  For employees, there’s part-time work (I couldn’t manage my families needs without this), flexible hours, and the opportunity to ‘buy’ additional annual leave to help families manage school holidays.  For staff at our recreational centres, there’s also the opportunity to take advantage of the excellent child care and creche facilities on offer at many.

There’s also our new Family Membership, that blows away the cobwebs of the ‘traditional’ family unit of mum, dad and two kids, to welcome families of all kinds.  We also provide support for families through support networks Parentlink and Dadslink, big on providing fun, recreational and social activities for families to come together.  Pizza nights, family camps, day trips…isolation-breaking experiences.  We provide school holiday programs and outside school hour care. And, critically, there’s subsidised support for families who can’t afford  full fees, through YMCA Open Doors. Last financial year in Victoria we provided more than 3,100 inividuals (including many, many families) with support in this way.

From 4th to 8th January next year the YMCA is running a Family Camp, at Anglesea. If I wasn’t already on a family holiday of my own, I’d be there with bells on! All meals provided (my personal favorite), the opportunity to ‘hang’ with other families through the witching hour, and on the beach….as well as during the organised activities. Plus a very nice roof over your head and very little to do in the way of domestic duties. What’s not to like?

It doesn’t matter if your child has additional needs, or not. All children have needs. And at times, every family needs some extra support. Sometimes just being with other families can be therapeutic in itself. I know that I’d rather be on a family camp, with my son and the rest of my family, than constantly in waiting rooms. There’s a place for both.  I’m glad to work for an organisation that helps me realise – and access – this.

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