With the Australian of the Year Local Hero Award in 2016 under her belt and the media attention that ensues, Dr. Catherine Keenan is riding high on the wings of well-deserved success but she’s not resting on her laurels.
Formerly an arts writer and literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and with a doctorate from Oxford University no less, this modest, softly-spoken scholar and mother of two decided in 2012 to venture into the unknown – leave the hard-edged journalistic world behind her and launch a charity bringing words and stories and magic to marginalised children in Sydney.
Inspired by the work and ideology of American novelist Dave Eggers and 826 Valencia in San Francisco (see Egger’s TED Talk ‘Once upon a school’at the end of this piece) and with the help of co-founder Tim Dick, also formerly a writer at The Sydney Morning Herald, Catherine worked tirelessly to set up The Sydney Story Factory, a cosy little hub of story making goodness, gently nurturing the minds of children living with the effects of emotional trauma, poverty, and barriers to learning with coloured pencils, patience and imagination – smack bang in the mayhem of inner city Redfern.
The Sydney Story Factory is a little wonderland in itself, as the door closes on the hustle and bustle of the street outside, entry to this haven feels utterly inviting. Designed by LAVA – Laboratory for Visionary Architecture this place is extraordinary…a curved wooden world named The Martian Embassy. To me, it’s akin to the set of Watership Down and Alice in Wonderland too but I guess that is the essence of this place, it can be anything that your imagination allows it to be. There are no sharp edges here and no stark lights, it’s like an enveloping, creative cocoon patiently waiting to release its’ little tale-telling, fairy butterflies and monster-slaying, pirate poets into the outside world, one by one.
Catherine explains “The focus of The Story Factory is to change lives by giving skills and confidence to children, encouraging them to express themselves through language and writing.”
The stats are impressive – with over 6,000 enrollments to date and over 2100 through the door in a year clearly she’s onto something and thanks to the support and hard work of the staff and trained volunteers (1400 to date) Catherine is now planning to expand the service to Western Sydney and open a second Story Factory.
23% of children enrolled are of indigenous heritage and 47% are from non-English speaking backgrounds and I can only imagine the sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem this service gives to those children trying to grasp not only a different language but also a new way of life here in Australia.
“We are not a therapeutic environment, we are a creative one, we see children with all kinds of issues blossom through tapping into their imagination and expressing themselves through story-telling. Their self-confidence improves greatly and they deepen their engagement with learning.”
With so many examples of positive outcomes that prove the necessity for such a program, Catherine quotes Sam – a regular at The Sydney Story Factory who recently told her “I have the power to create new worlds!” and Bella another regular – “I feel like I have swallowed a Thesaurus!” Catherine adds “Bella didn’t think of herself as a story-teller, it came as such a surprise to her, she gets so much pleasure from her achievements here, it’s a joy to work with children like this and see them communicate so creatively and insightfully.”
Catherine started life in suburban Perth, her parents were Estate Agents and her love of books started at an early age. She was the first person in her family to go to University (followed by her brother, The Minister for Justice Michael King) and so off to Oxford University she went, studying literature and working towards her doctorate.
She thanks her school teachers for igniting the book loving flame within her and talks fondly of primary school teachers Miss Ford and Mrs. Vernon as well as her high school English teacher Ms. Mathis.
“Good school teachers are vital and make such a difference to a child’s learning but our current curriculum is crowded. Standardised testing can lead to less time for children to explore their creativity and a greater sense of there being a ‘right’ answer – when in creative endeavours, there’s never a right or wrong answer. Children need the time to experiment and explore all the possibilities, and have fun with the process too, this isn’t always possible in the school system despite the best efforts of some teachers. This is our aim here, to provide this time to those children who are dealing with a variety of problems.”
“The biggest challenges for us are always financial – we have a small amount of government funding now but this is a recent addition. We have cultivated some great corporate relationships particularly with UBS Wealth Management who were our founding partners in the very beginning and have stuck with us.”
Catherine’s Favourite Books for Children
Ages 3-5 – Amy and Louie by Libby Gleeson
Ages 6-8 – The Weirdo Series by Ahn Do
Ages 9-13 – A Series of Unfortunate Events . Lemony Snicket.
ABC News Interview with Dr. Catherine Keenan
Brendan Doyle @ Broken Yellow (featured image)