FOR indigenous mentor and netballer Melina Saunders, not playing a sport at school was never an option.
The former Australian Institute of Sport athlete, was brought up in a strict household by her parents, both strong Aboriginal activists for land rights, where it was instilled in her and her eight siblings to break down the common stereotypes that surrounded Aboriginal people.
“To have nine kids, and that stereotype of what Aboriginal people were like, [my parents] were really strict on us wearing our uniforms, having our hair tied up, no bra showing when we played netball,” she said.
“They were just really quite strict on breaking down those barriers.”
Her upbringing has led her to a successful netball career – including joining the AIS and an invitation to play for the Australian 21s squad at 16, making the Queensland Firebirds squad, playing for the Canberra Darters and now State league in the ACT – but it also led her to a school program where she now mentors 15 indigenous girls at Karabar High School, Queanbeyan, as part of the David Wirrpanda Foundation’s Deadly Sista Girlz program.
Funded through Netball Australia as part of the “No School No Play” program, it is designed for at-risk or disengaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female students, and aims to inspire and create opportunities for Aboriginal girls to reach their full potential as young women in the community.
“I’d heard about [former AFL player David Wirrpanda’s] foundation and I really agreed with all the things he was trying to achieve through that,” she said.
“And having a girl’s program I think is really great because there are a lot of programs for the boys through football, but not really a lot just for the girls.”
As part of the program, sport and netball, and learning more about Aboriginal culture and history, plays a big part in their weekly sessions, however Melina also mentors the students through life skills including: self esteem, education on drugs, alcohol, sex and women’s health, healthy relationships and finance.
Now in her second year as a mentor, Melina has noticed some changes for the better in the girls; issues that were problems for the school, including wearing school uniforms, disruptions in class and relationships with teachers.
“The way they are dealing with teachers and speaking to the teachers, there may not have been that level of respect, which does come with a bit of age, but they are starting to realise that the teachers are there to help them, not there to tell them what to do,” she said.
“And the fact that the older girls that were in the program last year are now in Year 10 and talking about going on to Year 11 and 12, that’s really the success story of the program.”
But one of the biggest things Melina would like to achieve through the program, that was instilled in her by her parents, is helping the girls better understand their Aboriginal identity.
“The biggest thing that I’ve noticed when I started with the program for some of the kids was their varying degrees of identity,” she said.
“Some of them sort of know about their Aboriginal heritage and some of them know that it’s there but probably don’t feel valid enough that they can really identify with it.
“That’s been a really big focal point for me as a mentor.
“In the Aboriginal community it’s really great that the next generation of kids coming through keep our culture alive and keep that sense of identity.”
More information visit dwf.org.au
PHOTO: Mentor Melina Saunders…“In the Aboriginal community it’s really great that the next generation of kids coming through keep our culture alive and keep that sense of identity.” Photo by Silas Brown.