The meeting that changed this young woman's life
There's no doubt about it - 2020 has been a difficult year for young Australians.
Loss of work, education and hope for the future has been exacerbated by the ongoing toll of the global pandemic, leaving many feeling more isolated than ever from friends and family and unsure of what to do next.
It's a feeling that NSW primary school teacher's aide, Monique, knows well. Growing up west of Sydney in the Mount Druitt area, she told news.com.au she was "blessed with an amazing family that always stood by me through anything".
But at the age of 13, when a series of health problems she'd endured for years "peaked", Monique's feelings of self worth and confidence rapidly declined until she "couldn't really see a future".
"It was dreadful. Really bad," she said.
"I spent a lot of time in hospital recovering, so I missed a lot of schooling and it took a big toll on my confidence because it was very hard to catch up. It had a massive effect on my family and friends … you know, it was hard to keep in touch while in hospital and all of that sort of stuff.
"I ended up doing horribly on my HSC and felt pretty worthless. And it was hard to see a positive future, it was."
It wasn't until a meeting with a Blacktown job agency when she was 18 - introducing her to not-for-profit youth organisation Whitelion - that Monique's life finally started to turn around.
The charity, started back in 1999 in Melbourne to put an end to the "revolving door of young people in juvenile justice", exists to address youth social isolation and unemployment, CEO Hang Vo told news.com.au.
"Whitelion was founded to prevent recidivism by connecting young people with mentors as role models who helped them access employment," she said, adding they now assist young Australians across four states.
"We help young people at risk with their immediate needs to ensure they are safe and stable, while maintaining our focus on their future by helping them form positive connections and pathways to work, providing them with the tools they need to thrive independently and break cycles of disadvantage."
It was through her work with Whitelion that Monique got her Cert III in Hospitality, "turning my life around".
"It had a very, very positive impact. It did. Especially when we did the practical side, because they helped you experience different skills and stuff that you need in a workplace. And they kind of guided you through that and it gave you a lot of, 'Oh, you know, I can do something'," Monique said.
"I gained confidence, and I felt that I was worth something. I made friends and learnt skills, I learnt what it was like to be a team leader, and I'm always going to be grateful for that."
Asked what's changed since her dark days in high school, Monique said the biggest thing is that "the world feels like it's opened up to me more".
"I can see so much opportunity out there for me. The person I was in high school and the person I am today are both very, very different people and I just feel like I can do anything now," she said.
This year has only highlighted the importance of Whitelion's work, Ms Vo said, as more Australians become familiar with the struggles young people at risk face.
"We have now all experienced some level of social isolation, know someone who has lost their job or livelihood or indeed experienced it ourselves. Imagine for young people at risk - this is a daily battle," she said.
"Young people are the first to be impacted by the pandemic and the last to recover. While the full extent of the impact is yet unknown, the recovery is expected to take 10 years. Our mission is to ensure that no young person is left behind."
While we may have experienced isolation from friends, family and workmates during Australia's various COVID-19 lockdowns, "many of us knew that we had a safe haven at home".
However, there are 44,000 Australians under the age of 25 who don't have that reassurance.
Ahead of World Homeless Day on October 10, the organisation have turned their attention to the issue of youth homelessness with their No Home Address campaign.
"The pandemic has either exacerbated or deepened homelessness further. Strict restrictions and social distancing has forced some young people back into unsafe and unstable family homes, increasing the rate of family violence. Emergency shelters are over stretched," Ms Vo said.
"The economic downturn has the flow-on effect on young people who occupy a large proportion of the casualised workforce in volatile industries such as the gig economy, retail and hospitality. Low income families who were already under stress are now facing a dark future."
Having experienced her own struggles and come out the other side, Monique said one of the first steps is to breaking down the stigma around young people at risk is "not to normalise these issues".
"It's important to make taboo subjects, like mental illness, more talked about in the community so as to make sure a young person feels heard and not like they don't have a chance," she said.
"If big issues are more talked about, the youth at risk won't be scared to get help and could lead to a more positive future."
For any young Aussies feeling a lack of self esteem and confidence, her message is simple: "It won't last forever."
"I would say that there's a lot more to life than high school. It was a huge challenge for me, and then I found Whitelion and now it's changed my life. You know, you can find something one day too that will change your life."
Originally published as Meeting that changed teen's life