The homely, gorgeously lush Bond Street Kindergarten is decorated lovingly for Christmas as I lower myself into a chair that’s three sizes too small. A gaggle of toddlers are ushered into the room, giggling to themselves as they patiently wait for Ditto the lion cub to take them on his Keep Safe Adventure. Ditto is the mascot of Bravehearts, an education organisation dedicated to educating, empowering and protecting kids and community against child sexual assault. The three educators on the Bravehearts team are experienced primary school teachers, and it shows in their enthusiasm and gentleness when speaking with the kids.

“Am I in the wrong place?” asks Mandy Berry, “Because you’re sitting like school kids! Are you sure you aren’t school kids?” Positively chuffed at the praise, the kids are made to feel comfortable and welcome as Meryl Friend (dressed in the wonderfully elaborate Ditto the lion cub costume) takes them on Ditto’s Keep Safe Adventure. Using songs, interactive discussions and a dash of humour, Ditto teaches the kids about personal safety, including “yes and no feelings”, which areas are private parts of their bodies, warning signs from their bodies, secrets are addressed and that they should report to an adult they trust if they ever feel unsafe or unsure about others. This community funded program is aimed to empower kids to speak up when they experience “no feelings”, and to identify the strategies they can use to protect themselves – such as the difference between long term and short term secrets. While the latter might be hiding the details of a surprise birthday party, the kids are encouraged to reveal any “secrets” someone has told them to keep if it makes them feel unsafe or unsure.

Ditto and Bravehearts Geelong Education Team (002)

The founder of Bravehearts, Hetty Johnston, grew up in Ocean Grove before moving to Queensland. When Hetty discovered that her 7 year old daughter was being abused by her grandfather, this was when she knew she had to do something to support victims and their families. So Hetty established the Bravehearts counselling service in Queensland in 1997.

1 in 5 Australian children are sexually harmed in some way before they turn 18 and 70-90 % of the time the perpetrator is known to the child. These are alarming figures that need to be talked about – but many people are not sure how to approach the subject. Today, Bravehearts education teams operate in Shepparton, Tasmania, Sydney and Queensland and right here in Geelong. Since the Geelong team was established in 2012, 56,500 children have attended this incursion and this community funded program has been embraced by 75 local primary schools and 93 kindergartens. “Hopefully we are making a difference,” Mandy says. “We only need to help one child for the program to be of value.”

In addition to the children attending, school staff, parents and carers are invited to sit in on the sessions. Mandy tells me that any survivors who attend appreciate that something is being done to help kids, as often there was very little support for them during their experience. Hearing the stories of these survivors and teachers who sometimes disclose stories about their students can be an emotionally trying experience. Thankfully the Bravehearts staff are equipped with the resources to navigate these difficult conversations. Earlier last year, Mandy and fellow educator, Chris Schultz attended the Youth Mental Health First Aid training delivered by Hero Town Geelong. “The course really helps to understand where the survivors are coming from,” they tell me. “It’s helped us to be more aware of and sensitive to issues around mental health.”

The Bravehearts program has been of immeasurable benefit to children all across Australia by giving them the language they need to speak up. Mandy tells me about a teacher who disclosed a story about a child in her class who rarely spoke up in class otherwise, but used the Bravehearts language to privately talk to his teacher about his abuse. Because of the intervention and education of the Bravehearts educators, this child was able to get the help he needed. The numbers of local schools and kindergarten children who have been educated, empowered and protected by the Bravehearts program has continued to grow every year, and 2018 will be no different. Most kindergartens and schools rebook each year all keen to reinforce these important messages. The Geelong Bravehearts Education Team will continue to do what they can to promote their personal safety messages and endeavour to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.

Story: Stephanie Downing Photo: Supplied