Half Mag / Half Zine

Neisha and Sharleen Dunn’s journey to completing year 12 and their HSC exams has been vastly different from most other teenagers around the country.

The sisters, aged 18 and 17 respectively, both gave birth in their final year of school and now have the additional responsibility of being mothers.

“It’s been really hard, especially with a baby,” Neisha says.

“Getting up and getting ready for school is hard.”

Initially, they believed the extra stress and responsibility would be too much to handle.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it to year 12,” Sharleen says.

However, a program on the NSW Mid North Coast has helped them to continue attending classes.

Kempsey’s Macleay Vocational College caters for school-aged students who have fallen out of mainstream education and its Ginda Barri Mums and Bubs program provides a flexible education environment for young mothers of babies and toddlers.

Neisha says she is grateful for “people to help and support me while I go to school, do some work, and finish school”.

“I didn’t know there were going to be opportunities like this,” she says.

In addition to helping the young mothers complete their HSC exams, the school also provides housing and welfare assistance, transport to school, daily meals, and the opportunity to get their drivers’ licences.

“They’re always there every morning picking us up,” Sharleen says.

“It’s been amazing.”

The sisters moved to Kempsey from Armidale, in the state’s Northern Tablelands, where they say they struggled with schooling.

Their mother decided to move to Kempsey and enrol the girls in Macleay Vocational College.

Neisha says making it to their final year of school is a milestone that makes their mother extremely proud.

“She was over the moon when she heard we were doing our HSC,” Neisha says.

Ginda Barri program creates hope
The Ginda Barri program was developed in 2015 by Sue Seager, who remains an integral part of the program as a facilitator.

“It wasn’t fair that women would leave school and have a baby, but [find it] too hard to go back,” Ms Seager says.

“So I came up with the idea that there should be a creche-type facility where mums can come back to schools or TAFE and there’s someone here qualified in a safe environment to mind their children.”

The group initially operated two days a week and students could work towards vocational qualifications. Since then, it’s grown to focus on HSC as well.

Ms Seager hopes more communities will implement similar programs.

“If we can have children growing up happier and healthier, in the long term it’s going to be less of a burden on our health system, on our justice system, it’s going to reduce some of those antisocial behaviours people tend to turn to … when they don’t have any hope.”

Students are ‘inspiring women’
Twenty students at the Macleay Vocational College are set to graduate year 12 this year, including three young mothers.

“They’re some of the most inspiring young women I’ve ever met,” principal Ryan Martin says.

“Some of our mums may have started year 12, become pregnant, walked away from school, and then they come back to us.”

One of those students is 23-year-old Toni Atkinson, who recently started year 11.

“I did go to school here and then I fell pregnant and I didn’t complete my school,” Ms Atkinson said.

However, during her time at Macleay Vocational College, she learnt of the Ginda Barri group.

“That motivated me to come back and complete school,” she says.

“We started with a course with our babies and learning their emotions.

“It’s a big support.”

Mr Martin, who became the school’s principal in 2021, says the students are often some of the first in their family to complete year 12.

“It’s allowing young mums in community to continue their education, complete their HSC, do some VET courses, and upskill themselves so the example they’re setting to their young ones is that education is important,” he says.