YMCA related

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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!


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.

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.

Why do you write?

I wanted to be a writer or a journalist  for as long as I can remember. I also wanted to be a ballet teacher but that was short-lived. Although I loved ballet, I wasn’t much good at it!

When I write I feel clearer, sharper, smarter, wiser.  I write to reflect and think.  When I speak, I’m prone to losing track of my thoughts, the threads of conversation. Writing helps me compensate for my weaknesses and enhances my strengths.

In many ways, print journalism provided the perfect apprenticeship for me. It allowed me to ask questions rather than speak, to capture in shorthand the words of interview subjects as they spoke.  Later, in the ‘quiet’ of the newsroom,  I’d spend time working out what was actually said.  When the story became ‘mine’  as I shaped and crafted it, I came to  understand it. Then I could tell it clearly, persuasively and with insight.  And in a newsroom I learned to write faster, under pressure, to deadlines and word counts – and most critically,  for readers.

Later as a ‘mature age’ university student I further refined my writing skills, studying fiction, poetry and script-writing,  literature, international politics and public relations. It took me 10 years and three universities to complete an undergraduate degree, eventually graduating with a BA in Professional Writing.  Along the way I wrote a novel – not published but lovingly finessed nonetheless, and teaching me even more about the craft of writing.  At uni, I  also learned to construct a persuasive argument, to research and probe more deeply. And I became aware of the political and cultural shape of the world, and my place in it.

 All of this experience and daily use of my skills has enhanced my ability to create meaningful communications in both my personal and professional life.  I like to use these skills to open dialogue with others, to tell stories, and to find common ground  through the written word.  Words have power.

 I’m glad social media has come along. Used “for good not evil”, it provides us all with more opportunities to connect, learn from each other and explore new possibilities.  While it’s true that anyone can write, those of us who have spent our lives working with words are well equipped to ride the wave of change.

 Through my work and in my personal life I consciously try and share only positive stories and messages. There’s enough negativity in the world without adding fuel to it.  Working for the YMCA, which is overflowing with positivity  and opportunities to connect people to each other, their families and their wider community – is a perfect fit for me.

Why do you write, and what do you like to write about?

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.

Waiting at Darwin Airport

Here I am at Darwin Airport, waiting for a two-hour delayed return flight to Melbourne after attending another amazing Public Relations Institute of Australia Conference. Long time, no blog. But plenty of tweeting and Facebooking in the meantime. Why? It’s shorter and sharper and easier to think of short, sweet things to say. But the conference has got me fired up to blog again. I was suprised to learn from Greg Ames of Media Monitors that blogging is pretty much the only means you have left to get your website to the top of King Google.

The conference also got me thinking more about personal brands helping to build corporate brands. I picked “Di From the Y” as ‘toe in the water’ name last year. Now I feel more connected to being “Di From the Y” and ready to be a stronger advocate for the organisation I have worked with, for the past five years. The trick is going to be to encourage more of our people to get on board, blogging and embracing social media, too. Now there’s a challenge to embrace. Get on board, fellow YMCA bloggers!

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